I won’t deny that I miss Christmas.
There, I said it. I miss Christmas. I missed it last year, and I miss it this year. And I’ll probably always miss it, at least a little.
See, I grew up on Christmas being a Really Big Deal. Catholic family, you know. Catholic church musician family, to put a finer point on it. My mother was an organist and pianist, and my dad was a choir leader, music director, and cantor (yes, the Catholics call it that – but in the Catholic sense it’s more like “soloist,” rather than “song leader”). My dad composed Masses and we used his music in church.
Christmas week was always incredibly hairy and stressful. There was Midnight Mass, and then Christmas morning Mass, and then the big family Christmas dinner in the afternoon, which both of my parents practically killed themselves to pull off every year.
So it was a Big, Big Deal, okay?
When something is part of your childhood, and you were deeply involved in it, of course you will miss it. I miss the songs. I miss the decorations and the anticipation and all the little holiday rituals my parents had built up over the years:
- Buying the tree at a tree farm on the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend (back before they started calling it “Black Friday”) and then picking it up/cutting it down on the anniversary of my father’s father’s death, on December 18, to put it up in the house…
- Christmas cookie and fruitcake baking on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend…
- Putting up the house decorations on the first of December, including the lights all over the outside of the house; the mantelpiece (which my mother covered with juniper branches from the juniper bushes in the front yard, and then filled in with lots of kitschy decorations, including a Santa head candle that got progressively more smooshed, damaged, melted, and unrecognizable as the years went on – but it was tradition); the handmade Advent calendar that my father built – an enormous three-foot-tall by five-foot-wide rectangle of green-and-white-and-red plywood, with impossibly detailed day markers for the four weeks of Advent, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Epiphany; green garlands up the stair railing, Hickory Dickory Dock (the Christmas Mouse) sitting on the grandfather clock, the Santa candy jar on the dining table, my mother’s little “old-fashioned” fir in a pot with bubble lights and gingham bows and hand-crocheted snowflakes…
- Hanging our stockings on December 6th, because it was St. Nicholas’ Day, and picking Secret Santas for the remainder of Advent out of the Santa candy jar…
- The tree-raising party my parents held on the anniversary of my grandfather’s death, where everyone had to bring a potluck contribution, have a cup of soup my parents prepared (French onion or split-pea, or both), and hang at least three things on the tree – and to which they invited all the neighbors for three blocks around, because at about 9 pm my mother would sit at the piano and the sixty or so people in attendance would belt out the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah in four-part harmony (they were all music people)…
And, of course, there were rehearsals with the choir and the professional vocalists and small chamber orchestra that my father contracted every year to perform at the church for the Masses and the pre-Midnight Mass concert, which included the aforementioned Messiah oratorio.
Like I said, Christmas was a Big, Big Deal.
Last year we had our first Hanukkah. I was determined to celebrate it as Jewishly as possible, to kind of gloss over missing Christmas, and since it ended only two days before Christmas, it wasn’t that big of a loss for me that year. It covered up the things I was missing. I considered an Eitz HaMoed (Tree of the Seasons) and then decided against it, feeling it wasn’t a properly Jewish thing to do. All the decorations I’ve lugged around with me for years stayed in a box in the back of the office closet. We exchanged Hanukkah gifts and lit the menorah, sang the songs and spun the dreidel, learned how to make latkes and went out for Chinese and a movie on the day itself… and it seemed to be a relief not to have to do all the hoopla.
But this year, I don’t know. I’m a Jew, I know that in my heart, and as such the religious meaning of Christmas is no longer relevant to me. I don’t miss the pontificating or the moralizing or any of the trappings of the faith I was raised in.
But it’s not the religious meaning that I miss. It’s the traditions that I miss. And those traditions are not necessarily religious. They’re just… family. Memory. Things I grew up with, that I don’t know how to translate into a Jewish setting. Yet.
It’s things like the smell of evergreens and hot apple cider. It’s the white lights twinkling against glass balls hung on a tall pine tree. It’s the train set my father set up under the tree every year and delighted over. It’s humming along with songs that are part of me to my bones.
And it’s missing my dad, too. It was one of his favorite times of year – the entire month of December, really. And he was told the day after Christmas in 2008 that he had about two weeks to live. (It turned out to be a month.)
So, I’m a Jew who doesn’t celebrate Christmas. That’s not going to change. I shy away from singing any Christmas carol that references the religious aspects of this increasingly secular holiday in any way. I admit to singing along with Deck the Halls at my daughter’s high-school choir concert earlier this month, because that’s just a song that celebrates the winter holiday.
But next year, I want to find a way to have some of that feeling come back to me. I want to find a way to make December a month of celebration again. I mean, learning Hanukkah songs has helped, but there’s only so many times you can sing O Hanukkah before it all starts to sound the same.
Here. Have a song from Tim Minchin. Apart from the Dawkins bit, it’s pretty much how I feel.
I want to thank my readers for hanging on and hanging in with me after the overwhelming experience of having gone to the mikveh and the beit din a few months ago. I’ve been slammed with work and very tired most of this fall, but I hope to get back to this blog now that things are easing off. In the meantime, I hope you have or did have a great holiday-of-your-choice, and I’ll hope to be back in the swing of things soon.