I have been slightly irreverent from the moment I was born. My parent’s took us to church as small children, and as a part of that, we were drafted into the classic nativity play. Looking back on this story, it is probably a good thing that I decided to become Jewish…I never neatly meshed with the whole Christmas concept. My sister, Stephanie, says she has only seen me fail at two things in my entire life: being straight and being an angel. I failed at being an angel so spectacularly that the incident was printed up as a Christmas story in the local newspaper when I was three. The story was so popular that they reprinted it (on reader request) every Christmas for the entirety of my youth. They may still be running the story. I stopped looking for it when I left Norman and no longer got the city’s paper.
Not the same dress, and I am unarmed here, but you get the idea.
My parents didn’t discover religion until I was 16—I came home after one summer studying Mexico to find that they had met God, joined a church, and not only went to services every Sunday, but started reading theology books to each other before bed each night. It was as if entirely different people had replaced my parents. I told them they had another two years to go before they could be empty nesters, but I guess they decided after that summer that I could take care of myself, because they started throwing parties and drinking margaritas. Before that, the closest I ever saw my parents get to drinking on a Friday night was my mother’s habitual splash of baileys in her hot chocolate.
My dad has always had a bit of a sweet tooth, and theology became his late-life liquorish. My mom just went along out of morbid curiosity, I think. When I was young, my parents’ relationship with the church was wary at best. Still, they felt they had an obligation to expose their daughters to religion, so every Sunday morning they dressed my sister and me up in pretty dresses and carted us off to Sunday school.
Every Christmas, our church conscripted all of the Sunday school kids into the traditional nativity scene play. A small part of Stephanie has always thirsted for the spotlight—though in adulthood she left the theater behind, instead opting to take center stage in the kitchen. Stephanie was barely 8 at the time, and this year, she was the head sheep. That was about the most prestigious role that any of the little kids could hope for, and she wore that distinction like a crown on her little strawberry-blonde head. Much less gloriously, I was supposed to be herded down the aisle with all of the other toddlers holding an angel. Essentially my only role was to look cute.
My grandmother had sewn matching purple velvet Christmas dresses for my sister and me. These were the classic early 90’s cute kid clothes—puffy sleeves and skirts with bows, made out of the fabric that must have been intentionally designed by some sadist to be aggravatingly itchy. I was a bright blonde little girl with enormous blue eyes, and in that dress, with my hair done up in curls, I probably did look like a cherub—abet a deeply scowling cherub.
The problem with handing a scowling cherub a wooden angel on a dowel rod is that you have actually handed that cherub a very orate club. I was more than happy to use that club to vent my anger at being forced into that stupid purple velvet dress by waiting until the middle of the nativity play, then gleefully bludgeoning the terrorized toddlers around me with my Christmas weapon. Eventually, my father had to grab me by the back of the dress and haul me from the chapel. It must have looked a bit like I had taken flight, with him holding me suspended above the ground by the back of my dress, zooming over the crowd of panic-stricken three year olds trapped in the aisle as I continued to enthusiastically swing at the exposed heads of my classmates.
The greatest tragedy of this story, however, was not the diaper-clad casualties, but was my sister. It is hard to live out your full glory as the head sheep when no one notices you past the Cute Little Angel of Doom. It is a relationship that has defined my sister and my Christmas experience ever since.
Christmas was like a prolonged shot of cocaine to my child-soul—all the beautiful lights, presents, food, and of course, having the honor of being related to Santa. Into my early adulthood, I loved Christmas more than any other time of year, and would prance around all December decorating everything I could get my hands on and singing Christmas carols at the top of my lungs (mostly because it was a fool proof method to annoy my sister). Since I was so deeply entrenched as the Queen of Christmas Spirit, my sister was forced into the role of the Christmas Grinch for years. This year, everything shifted. This is my first Christmas as a Jew. I thought I would hold more nostalgia for my former favorite holiday, but strangely I have felt myself easily pulling away. Though the family traditions still connect me to happy memories, it no longer feels like my holiday. Like someone else’s birthday, I can appreciate the festivities without taking any ownership of the events that pass. Since this is the first year bridging Christmukkah, I have found myself drawing all sorts of arbitrary (and mostly non-sense) lines in the sand. Fine, I will help you decorate the Christmas tree, but only if we listen to Hanukkah music while we decorate. I will help prep Christmas dinner, so long as we make latkes the night before… Being in a mixed family has its complications, but I am sure everything will settle out as we become more practiced.
Perhaps fate also senses the change in the status quo. When I was helping my mother and sister put up the tree, it tipped over and fell on me, whacking me on the head. I immediately burst out yelling, “DO YOU THINK IT KNOWS I AM JEWISH?!?” My mother says she doubts it, but I still think Christmas is resentful of my precipitous drop-off of Christmas spirit. I even voluntarily turned my stocking to the side that says “coal”, because I figure Jews who are celebrating Christmas with their goyim family probably qualify for coal from Santa. Maybe I hope the acknowledgement will ward off vengeful Christmas spirits.
However, what surprised me most was not my willingness to abdicate the Christmas throne so easily, but my sister’s enthusiasm to take up the mantel. Finally, the head sheep has a second chance to shine…she has been running around the house like a born-again elf, decorating and wrapping and planning a very elaborate Christmas menu. Sometimes it makes me slightly sad to wonder: if my influence has kept her from coming into her own at Christmas all these years, what else am I unintentionally holding her back from?
Regardless, this expatriate elf would still like to wish you a Very Merry Christmas (and a Happy Hanukkah). I hope that whatever religion you do or don’t observe, that you have the chance to spend some time with your loved ones this winter, eating food and sharing in the little acts of love which bind us all together.