My stepmother was a traditionalist about many things—she quit work when she married my father, and the cookie jar in the kitchen was always kept full—but about nothing so much as Christmas. During the rest of the year they kept a Jewish house, but Christmas was non-negotiable. As soon as Thanksgiving had ended, boxes of ornaments would come out of the basement, heirlooms from my stepmother’s German-American parents and grandparents, ready to be dusted. The tree—always a real one—would be set up either in the living room, where a wall-length floor-to-ceiling mirror could reflect its glitz, or by a front window, where anyone passing the house could see. My father’s study, normally a sober room where he did his dictation and other after-hours work, was transformed into “Gift Wrap Central,” with roll upon roll of wrapping paper tumbling from the closet onto a card table set up especially for that purpose, with ribbons, gift tags, and other trimmings alongside. And a hefty white-leather Bible with gilt-trimmed pages, a family tree penciled into its inside cover, would be laid out on a console table, its pages opened to one of the Gospels, with the wooden figurines of a crèche arranged alongside.
I loved the Christmas spectacle in a way that perhaps only a Jewish child can, my longing inflamed by the certain knowledge that I was not supposed to participate in these festivities. I was, after all, a visitor in this house: an overnight guest on Wednesdays and weekends, with a designated bedroom neatly outfitted with Laura Ashley wallpaper and linens, its coolly perfect surfaces neither reflecting nor consoling my inner chaos. Home was a few miles away with my mother, who still lived in the house where my father had left for work one morning and failed to return. My mother and father had been married 11 years previously in a traditional service conducted by an Orthodox rabbi, my mother angelic in a long-sleeved white gown. Months after the divorce was final, my father married my stepmother in the backyard of their new house, with a Reform rabbi and an Episcopalian minister jointly officiating.
My mother was nobody’s idea of a religious woman—in the style of many nominally secular suburban Jews, we kept Passover but not Shabbat, fasted on Yom Kippur but avoided the synagogue for the rest of the year. Once we put up a prefab sukkah, walls of canvas sheeting hung from metal poles, but I don’t recall actually using it. Yet my father’s interfaith marriage unleashed a hitherto unseen level of fury in her. It was bad enough that he had run off and left her, but with a shiksa? And so my Jewish identity, as yet embryonic, was the major battleground for their custody fight, a bitter dispute with a complicated cast of characters that included lawyers with sinister names and a small battalion of psychiatrists and social workers ready to testify that one parent or the other was a threat to my mental health. My mother’s parents were Holocaust survivors who had lost their parents and almost all of their other relatives in the war, and to sing a Christmas carol or paint icing on a reindeer cookie was granting Hitler a posthumous victory. The only appropriate activities for a Jew on Christmas were serving dinner at a food pantry, going to the movies, or eating Chinese food.
Christmas, for our family, was more than just a Christian festival with pagan trimmings that had served for almost two millennia as an occasion for the persecution of Jews (in my mother’s words). It was an emblem of the gulf that separated my parents, and all the anger and resentments that regularly bubbled up from within it. A furtive glance out of the car window as we drove through an illuminated goyische neighborhood, or a carol softly sung as part of the school holiday celebration, could hardly be helped. But with every ornament hung or Christmas cookie baked together with my stepmother, I declared my allegiance to one side over the other.
Nonetheless, somehow my father’s will usually triumphed, and on Christmas morning we would head off to the home of one of my stepmother’s relatives, where we would open the presents waiting under the tree and invariably eat the same Christmas-morning breakfast dish, a casserole of eggs, cheese, and (naturally) sausage. All the relatives would give me gifts, even distant cousins I hardly knew, and I tried my best to reciprocate. I even participated in the annual “stocking exchange”: At Thanksgiving dinner, we would draw out of a hat the name of the person whose Christmas stocking we were responsible for that year, to fill with treats and gag gifts. (On the years I spent Thanksgiving with my mother, my father would pick an extra name out of the hat as my proxy.)
Perhaps it was the guilt of taking part in something to which my mother so strenuously objected, but despite the intensity of my Christmas longing, I never felt quite comfortable with this ritual. And though my stepmother and her family always made every effort to include me, I suspect they didn’t feel completely comfortable either, because they had one Christmas tradition to which I was never allowed access. An old foil-covered box had been passed from relative to relative for Christmases immemorial. The person who got the box was supposed to hold on to it till the following year and pass it on to someone else. Each year, the family waited eagerly to see whose turn it would be. But no one ever gave me the box. And why should they have? After all, my Christmases were provisional. Next year I might be spending the holiday with my mother, watching the latest blockbuster or eating lo mein, like all the other good Jews.
The Christmas tug-of-war went on, I’m embarrassed to say, well into my adulthood. Then I married a man with a somewhat more traditional Jewish upbringing. We spent our first Christmas together flying home from our honeymoon. My husband, noticing that the pilot’s name was Cohen, joked: “Ah, Christmas, the day the Jews run the world.” I could get used to this, I thought, looking around at the empty plane and peaceful airport.
My husband was willing to make a lot of accommodations for my split family, but Christmas he would not do. And so we started spending the winter holidays as he always had: on vacation with his parents and brothers, dutifully pretending not to notice the Christmas baubles that bedecked the hotel. At dinner on Christmas Eve, we would try to avoid anything smacking too noticeably of foreign traditions—no goose or plum pudding. The first few years, I sent presents for my stepmother and her family, as they did for me. Then, slowly, we stopped. Eventually the Christmas contact dwindled to a phone call. But my “Merry Christmas” always sounded fake, at least to my ears.
And then my family split again. This time it was at the instigation of my stepmother, who abandoned my father during the summer of their 25th year of marriage a few months after reconnecting with her high school sweetheart on Classmates.com. That fall, as we were pushing my baby daughter in her stroller one warm day, my father said casually, “Well, at least we won’t have to do Christmas this year. I never felt right about it.”
I nearly gasped. “You didn’t?” I managed to ask. My father shook his head. “It’s not the way I was brought up” was his only explanation.
And with that something changed for me. With my stepmother gone, the emotional baggage that Christmas had always carried in our family all but disappeared. For the first time, I felt free—not to avoid Christmas, but to celebrate it in my own way. I took my son to all the holiday train shows without wincing at the omnipresent reindeer and Santa. I baked cookies, three different kinds, from the Christmas issue of a food magazine, and gave them away as gifts. It wasn’t Christmas itself that had been the source of so much angst—it was my parents’ divorce. Christmas was a convenient scapegoat: a symbol of betrayal, of loyalties conscious or unconscious, of sides chosen or rejected. All of which has nothing to do with the musky scent of pine, the soft snow of powdered sugar on a Yule log, or the brightness of illuminated tree boughs in the night.
This article was originally published on December 23, 2008.
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