The holidays are a time fraught with challenges. Every Christmas card, tv special, or holiday movie shows idealized families having a wonderful time and grinning like pole cats. Everyone is surrounded by love and magically manifests a bounty of perfect gifts. Television families might have a falling out, but by the end of the hour-long show all the differences have been fixed and everyone is happy and loved again. How many times have we watched It’s a Wonderful Life to be reassured that even if we have screwed up big time, we matter and the world is a better place because we are here (sitting on the couch eating ice cream.)
In my experience, however, the holidays are a trying time. When I was a child, ours was the only Jewish family in town. In every other living room window was a majestic, colorful Christmas tree. In ours was an ugly electric menorah that my parents frequently forgot to light. My friends all received an array of gifts that they kept their eyes on under the tree before Christmas morning, when they ripped them open and then wept with pleasure and gratitude. My parents told us that instead of one big gift (their version of what kids got for Christmas), we were lucky enough to get a gift every night of Hannukah. Except we didn’t. My mother was raised in an American Communist, labor union family, and the holidays were considered bourgeois. Religion was “The opiate of the masses” and the holidays were a way to hook people into consumerism and mindless festivity. They distracted from the serious business of bringing equality to the underclass. Therefore we disdained the holidays and were reminded of the starving children in China when we acted disappointed with our meagre holiday booty.
At school during the Christmas season, mom warned us not to sing songs about Christ in the Christmas chorus, and that we should excuse ourselves from participating in singing any Christmas songs at all. That left “Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel,” the token holiday song for us to sing. I loved singing Christmas songs so I kept my mouth shut about not excusing myself to sit by myself in an auditorium seat until the dreidel song when I was supposed to leap onto the stage. I sang louder (and more off-key) than anyone else. I frequently spent the night with friends and would beg to be included in church services, especially at Christmas. The music, the flowers, the incense…I loved it all. But I couldn’t tell my parents!
After Christmas, my friends would be wearing new clothing, playing with new toys, and sliding on pretty new sleds. Not us! We got to eat a few potato latkes and try not to be jealous of our friends. I often wonder whether my family’s avoidance of Christmas was just a way to avoid giving us gifts, because at birthday time we didn’t have much of a celebration either. Cake and ice cream party with a few friends and maybe one small gift, usually a party dress. The holidays were the time of year when I was reminded that I was different, and not in a good way. Our kind ate fried potatoes and talked about the exploited masses.
Later when I became a parent, I was determined to shower my family with Christmas presents. It was easy when the kids were little. I’d go on trips to Toys Are Us and fill up the cart. On Christmas morning, the kids would have a ball tearing into the wrapping paper and would treasure their gifts for the next day or two before tossing them aside. But it made me happy to see them smiling and having fun. When they got older, they would draw up elaborate lists of what they wanted, and often included items we couldn’t afford. Christmas morning was then greeted with a lot of sulking when the pony, new mountain bike, or car were not among the gifts. Even though I was now participating in Christmas giving, it didn’t feel as warm and fuzzy as those shows on tv or the scene I spied through the living room windows of strangers.
One big lesson I have tried to learn is to let go of expectations. It’s hard to shake those expectations that are deeply engrained from childhood, but I’m on my way. I give my children and grandchildren something to let them know they are loved, but I don’t go overboard. In addition, I let go of the expectation that they will love their gifts. Or will even thank me for them. I do not expect them to give me anything, but I am delighted when they do. As far as Ron goes, I expect no gifts at Christmas. He is always giving me things and being thoughtful all year round.
This year, however, I decided to give myself something I have always wanted. While browsing on Ebay, I found a stunning full length fox fur coat which I snagged for one hundred dollars!! My friend Christine said yesterday at lunch, “I am sooo jealous! I would love to wear a fur coat, but I’m afraid that the Peta people would chase me down and beat me up. Asheville is serious about animal rights!”
I say, “Too bad, bitches!” I got me a warm coat, these foxes have been dead since the seventies, and I’m in the Christmas spirit.” At last.