How I Learned to Shut Up and Love Christmas

It was the Christmas of 1992. A typical not-at-all-cold Southern California Christmas. The trees had sprung up out of vacant lots all around the tiny town of Claremont way back in October. By now, a week before Christmas, they were fading into the background of everyday life.

Personally, I couldn't wait to see them brown and dry on the sidewalks, waiting for collection as garbage. I was just that way about Christmas.

Growing up as one of a few Jews in our little town made December a month of hell for me. Oh sure, I got my presents, too. For Chanukah. But I also got back in touch with my outsider status. Every store downtown, every song on the radio, everywhere I looked I had yet another reminder that I was not a part of the majority. And every year in school I got to give a little presentation to the class about Chanukah.

"Class, this is Derek. He's not like you and me. He celebrates Chan ... Chan.... How do you say it again, Derek?"

I still remember being about 5 years old and not understanding why we didn't have a Christmas tree. My mother tried to explain it to me, but I wouldn't listen. I wanted to be like all my friends.

Finally she broke down and left two presents for my sister and me out on the fireplace on Christmas morning. It was a small concession to what popular culture had taught me to expect.

Years later, when my sister and I decorated one of the houseplants as a Christmas tree, my father would be less forgiving.

We are Jewish. We celebrate Chanukah, a miniscule holiday that never had anything to do with presents except for its close proximity to the day when a certain Jew was born to a virgin mother. And now, as a result, we have a month-and-a-half of holiday ads and sales and Muzak. Jesus would be proud.

Safe to say that by the time I was 19 in 1992, I was good and tired of explaining to the class what a menorah was. But a lot had changed by then.

Barbara, for example.

My parents divorced when I was 9 and by 1992 my dad was happily remarried to a woman named Barbara. As stepmoms go she was okay. She didn't mother me too much, she liked the Grateful Dead, and she drove a cool car. She was actually pretty hip.

But Barbara didn't celebrate Chanukah. She celebrated Christmas. In fact, to this day I'm convinced that she's the last person on the planet who still treats Christmas as a religious holiday. She actually hates all the hoopla more than I do.

So for Christmas 1992, I had a bright idea of what to get her.

It was a week before the big day and my dad and I were talking about how overworked we all were. "Barbara's too busy to even get a tree this year," he said.


Each year prior we'd struck a delicate balance in the house: a Christmas tree in one corner, a menorah in the other. Both sides were represented. Everyone was happy.

"Hey dad," I ventured, the idea already in full bloom. "Let's go get her one! It'll be a surprise!"

My dad smiled.

An hour later two virginal tree buyers stepped foot onto Al's Tree Farm on Foothill Boulevard. I can only imagine how we looked, meekly poking at trees and murmuring to each other. We had no earthly idea what we were doing.

It could have been a Woody Allen movie.

"How about this one?" my short, slightly pudgy dad asked, standing next to a short, slightly pudgy tree.

"No way, dad." I said authoritatively. "This is the tree for us," said tall, skinny me, standing next to a tall, skinny tree.

It would have been funny if I hadn't been so terrified by the whole experience. All those bells and whistles in my brain that started ringing in December were going at full volume. You don't belong here.

I was convinced that Al, the surly guy behind the counter of the shack in the middle of the lot, would approach us at any moment and ask us for our papers.

Fighting the urge to panic, my father and I continued through the lot, instantly bonding with any tree that vaguely resembled our body shapes. We finally settled on a middle ground tree and headed for Al. Thankfully, he didn't ask us what we were doing there. He simply took our money, had one of his henchmen strap the thing to the top of my dad's car, and we were off the four whole blocks to our house.

After several hours of moving and dragging and sawing and cussing, there was a beautiful, naked Christmas tree standing in the corner, just as is it always had in this hellish month.

My dad and I sat back and marveled at our accomplishment. He put his hand on my shoulder and gave me that "I'm really proud of you" look that only exists in after-school specials and greeting cards. And right then, as if on cue, Barbara arrived.

I still remember the look on her face – dazed, mouth open, eyes just a little teary – when she saw her husband and stepson, covered in pine needles, standing in front of that tree.

And for that one moment, for the first time in my life, I think I actually felt the holiday spirit.

Derek M. Powazek is online director of AlterNet and the publisher of fray, the digital storytelling magazine. He's gotten over his Christmas tree aversion. Mostly.

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