Why my cynical, atheist household is celebrating Christmas. By Kim Brooks for

The first time I told a child there was no such thing as Santa Claus, I was seven years old and overwhelmed with jealousy. My then best friend, a sweet Episcopalian girl whose family made December into a month-long orgy of gingerbread, reindeer and Christmas loot, drove me to it. With her blonde hair tied up in red and green ribbons and her War and Peace-length Christmas list, she seemed to embody everything wonderful about the holidays, everything for which I, as one of very few Jewish girls growing up in my rural Virginia town, was longing. 

As for Christmas in my own household, it involved an evening meal at House of Chang and some ungrateful tinkering with the toys I’d received for Hanukkah a week or so before. The problem was simple: no matter how many perfunctory potato latkes my marginally-observant family ate, no matter how many times my parents reminded me that there was more to religion than sweets and swag, the entire holiday season always seemed like a terrific party from which I’d been excluded. This mentality was what must have led me one December Saturday, as my Christian friend and I strode through the mall several paces behind my mother, to inform her that the fat man in the red suit with children sitting on his lap was not a saint from the North Pole but a hired hand.

I’d like to say that dashing the illusions of that little girl who, for one month each year, got to live in a house decked with white lights, having her belly filled with candy sprinkles as piles of presents accumulated around the tree, didn’t make me feel better. I’d like to say so, but I can’t. So thick was my resentment that I felt not a tinge of remorse as her face registered first a look of anger, then doubt, then a sullen irritation that I knew would fester in the weeks to come into downright disbelief. She was a nice girl, a good friend, and no matter how I tried to rationalize this exchange later on, the fact remained that I seriously screwed up that seven-year-old’s Christmas. And so this year, more than two decades later, in an effort to inoculate my two-month-old son, Roscoe, against future bouts of Santa envy, I’ve decided that snug in our cozy, secular home, my non-observant Jewish babe will be celebrating his first Christmas.

I know there are some who will take offense at this notion, accusing me of falling prey to all the holiday marketing and thinly-veiled materialism, for not sticking to my a-religious guns. But it seems to me that children in this country, children even more than adults, cannot escape Christmas; either they take part in it, or they’re outside of it, looking in. Given that dichotomy, I don’t see why my son should have to be excluded from what, for many, has become a secular holiday. Perhaps I’m a sucker for schmaltz, but I love imagining my infant son in a festive little sweater, bopping his bald head to Christmas songs and squealing with delight at the glittering lights and grown-ups silly on eggnog. I love the idea of a big old dysfunctional family dinner around the tinsel-trimmed tree, special holiday treats made with four types of sugar, everyone sipping hot cider while presents almost too beautiful to open are passed out one by one. I love the idea of, just once a year, spending money I don’t have on things people I hardly know probably don’t need. I love the over-the-top extravagance of it all.

“Bah, humbug,” replied a friend as I shared these thoughts with her. Having grown up celebrating the holiday, she couldn’t help but laugh. “You realize,” she said, “that the Christmas you’re describing, the one you’d like to give Roscoe, only exists in catalogues.” For her (and for many others, I suspect), Christmas was not always an idyllic reprieve from the stresses and strife of everyday life, but an intensification of them – family feuds and money worries and emotional insecurities all cranked up a notch. What I saw of my little Episcopalian friend’s Christmas experience was, after all, an outsider’s view. Who’s to say her “perfect” Christmas wasn’t punctuated by a drunk uncle mooning everyone across the buffet or her mother having a nervous breakdown over the goose? I know that what I remember most vividly about the few Jewish holidays my own family celebrated were moments more Franz Kafka than Norman Rockwell: the time my sister nearly burned the Maybe that’s what gives any holiday its sweetness – the wholesomeness of our fantasies set against the absurdity that down trying to light a bong with a Hanukkah candle is somehow a more cherished memory than any game of dreidel. Maybe such nuttiness is exactly what gives any holiday its sweetness – the wholesomeness of our fantasies set against the absurdity that ensues when families attempt to come together and be joyous. Maybe this tension is what I most hope to give Roscoe, the sweetness and absurdity of it all mixed up, the memory that his cynical, atheist mother – one night each year – wanted him to believe that the fat, bearded man in the mall could ride reindeer across the sky.

Article Posted 9 years Ago

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