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How This Atheist Jewish Writer Made Peace with Her Children's Love of Christmas

Our sense of compassion and empathy can come as much from our sense of belonging to a larger humanity as it can from our sense of otherness.

Sometime around mid-November, without any provocation on our part, our kids start a campaign to become like the Joneses. Not the Rosenswags, the Joneses. There’s no "Happy Holidays," no “Festival of Lights,” no “Kwanzmaskah” for them; it’s all Christmas, all the time. They long to adorn our front yard in mad energy-gobbling holiday lights, to get a 7-foot-tall Christmas tree you can see from the window, and to craft elaborate Christmas decorations out of recycled tin. They get up early each morning to make cards with pictures of trees and Santa. They squirrel away pieces of chalk and write “MERRY CHRISTMAS” in all caps on the sidewalk. Luna changes her braces' elastics to red and green and is only wearing red and green hair ties. Plum, who was happy to inform the other kids in Bridge-Kindergarten that Santa isn’t real, has this elaborate rationalization:

“Even though Santa isn’t real and is just a person dressed up, the guy who dresses up and rides the sleigh and has reindeer is STILL going to come down my chimney and give me presents.”

I’m not opposed to Christmas. In fact, I like it better than some other grown-ups I know and I can belt "Jingle Bells" with the best of them. But it’s not me. Growing up on a hippie anarchist commune and then moving to what seemed to me to be stiflingly normal Berkeley, CA, it would never have occurred to me to want, much less ask for, a tree. Or holiday lights. Or even, really, presents. We spent Christmas with close family friends, who had the whole nine yards—grandparents and presents and a big tree, eggnog and bacon and stockings. I loved it and I loved that I got to be part of it without having to pose that it was my tradition. For Hanukkah, we visited the downstairs neighbors who had latkes and could pronounce the Hebrew words correctly.

I’ve tried to break this gently to my children, but their steadfastness in owning Christmas is startling; it may not be me, but it’s them and it’s their father, who grew up with Lutheran and Catholic relatives and the whole shebang. We have tried a comprised version, with a potted blue spruce that lives in the yard most of the year and comes in from the cold mid-December. We put their hard-worked decorations on it, a few ornaments passed down from their father’s grandparents, some white lights, and a tinfoil star on top. This year, the kids stopped stumbling over calling it a “solstice tree” and call it what it is. Thanks to their fathers’ relatives, there will be a reasonable but not horrifying amount of presents.

We will spend Christmas morning with the same family friends I have for the last forty years, drinking eggnog and rummaging through stockings. We will negotiate, we will sing, but for me, it will always be as if I’m looking in on someone else’s strange and lovely ritual. It’s not that I want them to exchange all their Christmas fanaticism for Hannukah fanaticism or any other holiday extravaganza. It’s not that I want to “own” Christmas or create my own hippie version of the ritual, for the ritual seems to work just fine. It’s more than I am bewildered by my children’s sense of belonging; that they think of all the holiday wrappings and lights as their thing.

My first identity, once I got one, around 6 or 7 when we moved from the commune to the city, was as an outsider. More than being a girl, a kid, a Jew, a European-American, a sister, or a daughter, I was an outsider and that was a good, if not always pleasurable, place to be. Even in hippie Berkeley, I never felt among my people. I wore pillowcases to school. I’d seen more naked bodies before I was five than most people see in a lifetime. Enough said.

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