My father is a Jehovah’s Witness (yes, the people who knock on your door) and my mother is not. My mother wasn’t religious in any conventional sense, but really loved decorating in seasonal themes, which led to most holidays being a conflicted mess, with Christmas the worst of all. We had a tree, but it was a garish fake monstrosity hidden away in what we called the family room, and what my friends with money would have called the library. I was given presents, but in a misguided attempt by my father to disassociate the largesse from the holiday, I was given everything days before so I knew what my presents were, and then the gifts were wrapped and placed under the tree. My mother once baked cookies “for Santa” but, when I was five, I noted that we didn’t have a chimney, the presents were already in the front closet, and in the final blow, the oatmeal cookies she was baking were her own personal favorites. She stuck with the tree as her only nod to Christmas cheer from then on.
Adulthood did not make Christmas any more alluring. One year, I spent Christmas eating a rubbery slice of turkey at a truck stop with my now ex-husband and his mother. I have never been in to country music, but as I was chewing (and chewing… and chewing) through a pathetic cranberry apple crisp, I felt like if someone gave me a guitar and a beer, I could have come up with a song or two. Christmas for the irreligious in the early ’90s was like prison. Everything was closed and you were stuck with your family, who only could be differentiated from inmates by their lack of orange jumpsuits. I didn’t even have cable, so you couldn’t escape into mindless television, because the only things on were the same movies that had been played for so long, that I knew all the words. Yes, Ralphie, you’ll poke your eye out. And didn’t I wish I could do the same. I love a Christmas Story, but not on Christmas.
Being the Black friend added another layer to the Yuletide. Thanks again to the easy accessibility of televised cultural sensitivity, I was always picked to be the one to explain Kwanzaa, the holiday created in 1966 by African Americans to honor our African heritage, and which became well-known to the general public in ’80s and ’90s. Looking back, I can’t remember that I ever pointed out the obvious – I didn’t have any more of a connection to the holiday then the rest of my more melanin challenged friends did. With my love of exposition, I jumped into my copy of the encyclopedia (it’s like Wikipedia, but in a book form, and with actual editors) and did some investigating. At first, I would give an elaborate presentation, with a historical perspective, and descriptions of each of the eight days and their underlying themes. And then I started to hang out with more Jews.
“It’s like Hanukkah, but with a better design aesthetic,” I began to say.
Christmas in the workplace in America can also be problematic for a Jew, but not in the ways you would expect. One year, I worked in an office that began an “Employee of the Month” program. In a nod to union ingenuity, the names were to be picked from a hat. The first month of the rollout was October. We were given little cards shaped into something appropriate for the month. In this case, it was a pumpkin. While I had protested this as demoralizing and mildly offensive, my boss begged for my patience, and privately noted that this wasn’t his idea, but rather a corporate initiative to increase recognition for all employees. Keeping in mind all of the weirdness that he was forced to put up with from me, I acquiesced, with the caveat that I had better not be picked as the turkey or the Christmas tree. I dodged the turkey bullet, but early in December, my boss’s secretary came up to congratulate me as I arrived for work one morning on being selected as employee of the month, and then started handing out little construction paper Christmas trees to everyone. My boss came into the office a few minutes later and I took him aside.
“I have to ask you if this is ironic, in which case I’m amused. Or if this is for real, in which case I’m going to have a fit.”
He said the only curse word I would ever hear him use in two years, and strode off after his secretary. We were then all brought together for a “conference.” She argued that I was being overly sensitive. I asked why she would be so blind as to make Christmas tree cards for the department’s only Jew. She told me Christmas isn’t a religious holiday. I told her that just because she’s a bad Christian didn’t make me a bad Jew. The Employee of the Month program was cancelled. I still kind of wonder what they would have used for January’s theme. Martin Luther King, Jr. maybe?