Friday, December 29, 2006


Listening to a piece on NPR last week about how interfaith families celebrate the winter holidays, I started thinking about the way my family celebrates.

To call my relationship with Chris "interfaith" is kind of a stretch. I am Jewish by birth and by culture, but I am not religious. I almost never go to synagogue, I rarely fast on Yom Kippur, and I eat pork and shrimp. Chris, despite the meaning of his name, does not consider himself Christian. His family celebrates Christmas as a chance for family to be together, to get merry and bright and stuffed with cookies, but not so much as an occasion to meditate on the birth of a savior. Chris is just as likely to cheerfully call out "Happy feast of the unvanquished sun!" as he is "Merry Christmas!"


But we do enjoy traditions. I love the Jewish holidays - Passover especially, but also Chanukah, with its candle lighting and oil-fried potatoes. This year we celebrated on the first night by inviting friends over. I mumble-mumbled through the prayers before we all dug into dinner. Another night we shared the lighting of the menorah with Ada and a three year old pal. Our visitor wanted to know why we didn't blow the candles out after we sang the song. Then again, now that this girl is in preschool and has learned about Santa, she's apparently a bit miffed that her parents don't celebrate Christmas. I'm thinking a three year old may not be overly impressed by solstice unless it comes with gifts.

family in sled
How could you not enjoy something that encourages adults to put a restored sled in their dining room?

We celebrate Christmas with Chris's parents every year. After a decade of such celebrations, I am fairly committed to the traditions of my new family. I love icing sugar cookies. I appreciate being able to sit around in my pjs drinking coffee christmas morning, waiting until 11 or so to eat German pancakes, Texas grapefruit and Canadian bacon for breakfast. I like that the grapefruit always come from this one place, in the same yellow-brown box with the tissue paper swaddling.

The first couple of years that I joined Chris at his parents' house, I was a little weirded out by Christmas. The Christ part wasn't a problem, because as I mentioned, he doesn't make much of an appearance at the in-laws' house. It was the presents, the boxes and bags and more boxes of gifts. THIS was what I had managed to escape, the love expressed as intense consumerism that is so much a part of many Americans' lives this time of year. It was nice to get gifts, but it was kind of exhausting, too.

After that first Christmas with this family, I mentioned to my mom how different it was from how we'd celebrated Chanukah when I was a kid. She responded saying how glad she was that she and my dad had not had to wait for a once a year holiday to get us things, that we'd been financially comfortable enough for them to get us things all year. While her answer made sense at the time, in retrospect what she said was less about whether my parents could afford to buy us gifts, and more that they would not understand giving a big pile of gifts (that are never about "need" and all about "want"). As a child I could not even really have envisioned a pile of gifts of the sort some of my friends must have been getting. It just didn't fit my family, and I didn't grow up less happy because of it.

And ok, Chanukah is really a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, just one more celebration that boils down to "they tried to kill us, we didn't die, let's eat!". It became a big thing in the west because of Christmas. How can you look at a kid, who's had "he knows if you've been bad or good" drilled into her head and give her nothing? My parents apparently couldn't, and we celebrated Chanukah with candles and latkes and gifts all around. We got fun gifts the first few nights, but half way through the holiday we'd start getting cheerfully wrapped 3-packs of underwear or socks instead of toys or games. For several years we also got stockings filled with oranges and candy and toothbrushes.

Now that Chris and I are a bit older, we celebrate Christmas with my in-laws with fewer gifts and more game-playing, cooking and story-telling. This year Chris's dad asked me what I thought about Christmas, whether it bothered me to celebrate something that was not my tradition. I told him what I loved about it. If I had hated it, or wanted to get out of it, I could have made excuses for why I had someplace else I needed to be. But I never did, because with Chris and his (now my) family is where I wanted to be. Now that we have Ada backing out is much less of an option, so it is wonderful that Christmas with the family brings up feelings of joy rather than dread.

grandma and ada

This year, Christmas for Ada was all about family. Being with her grandparents is such a gift for Ada and for them. After a month of talking about her "boompa" Ada finally decided to give her Grandmother a name too. Saturday afternoon she busted out with "gamma" and we practically heard nothing else as she yelled, cooed, bubbled and crowed the word over the next four days.

tree christmas day

She could not get enough of her grandparents, hugging them, playing with them, helping bring wood inside for a fire, pointing out (and pulling off and replacing) the ornaments on the tree. And Ada continued to be in love with the cat, who has learned to tolerate if not appreciate Ada's friendly gestures and squeaky attention. Chrstmas would have been a success in her eyes with just the stocking to explore. What could be better than an orange, a toothbrush, and some toys? (Well, maybe the addition of some chocolate, but we are holding back on that for another couple of years...) Ada's first conscious Christmas was a bit like mine. She was so amazed and overwhelmed by the gifts and the wrapping and the more more more that she practically passed out in my arms by 10:30am. She learned fast that there is nothing better on Christmas day than to open presents in your pajamas and then take a nap.

Ada sleeping christmas eve


  1. I need to know more about the sled please?

  2. Yes, the gifts are the most exhausting part - if I thought either grandparent would abide by 1 present/person rules, I'd institute them! What I love is the cards and carols and time with family and cinnamon rolls for breakfast and good coffee and warm house - all the same stuff you love. The gifts I would happily skip, except for giving them, which I guess means I can dish it out but not take it. :)

    I'm glad you nonlinears had a lovely holiday with your extended loved ones!

  3. dodo - the sled is at my husband's aunt's house (aunt-in-law, I guess). Her husband buys lots of weird things at auction and then rehabs them. He's bought several sheep trailers and rehabbed them then sold them for obscene amounts of money to rich people with land. (I hear Ralph Lauren has several on his property in Colorado.)

    So they bought this and the aunt decided to keep it. She and her husband were thinking about moving to Idaho and she liked the idea of hooking up a couple of horses to the sled and visiting neighbors on cold winter nights. Since they have not moved, they decided to bring it inside for the holidays.