Christmas Eve Traditions I Have Known...
...including arts and crafts with other lonely Jews in the '90s East Village.
I didn’t meet my word count goal yesterday and promised myself I’d get cracking early this morning. But my first instinct when I came downstairs for coffee was to break out the crayons, colored pencils, and drawing paper, and I while I’m trying to maintain discipline over my writing practice, I’m also trying to listen to my creative instincts (and allow myself to use this newsletter to keep my writing brain well oiled).
I realized as I started drawing the above snowflake that this was me returning to an old Christmas Eve tradition.
🎄 🎄 🎄
Back in the late-90s, for a few years in a row, I invited a bunch of fellow Jews—writers, musicians, artists—over to my apartment on Christmas Eve to while away the lonely holiday together with an evening of simple, juvenile arts and crafts. I’d order in Chinese food and put out construction paper, crayons, cray-pas, colored pencils, scissors, and glue, and we’d all kill the dark hours together, drawing, listening to music, and talking, sometimes about how depressing Christmas is when the entire world is celebrating but it’s not your holiday.
Throughout the night, one of my regular guests, a man a few years older than me, would effusively express his gratitude. He was a pretty neurotic guy to begin with—anxious just about every day of the year—but he was particularly freaked out by this holiday, and in a way that I could very much relate to.
🎅🏼 🎅🏼 🎅🏼
When I was growing up my parents were adamant that Christmas was not our holiday, and it planted the seed for a lifetime of yule time malaise. It contributed to a feeling of outsiderness that’s never gone away. The outsiderness was kind of the point; my clergyman dad seemed to hold this belief that the Holocaust was (at least to some degree) God’s punishment for Jews’ assimilation in Europe. His uncle and other family members had been imprisoned in various concentration camps, and that knowledge had a lasting impact on him. So, while we were seafood-loving Reform Jews—the most washed-out, least observant denomination—we were not supposed to adopt many of the traditions common in American culture, especially those associated with Christianity. It was kind of confusing.
The war on Christmas in my house of course had the opposite of the intended effect. It made me obsessed with Christmas. From a young age I was overcome with envy toward my peers who got to celebrate. I’d fixate on TV Christmas specials, especially Andy Williams’ annual show, a perfect winter wonderland full of assorted Osmonds and other happy little gentile children, all singing “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and Christmas carols as they cozily sipped cocoa, left cookies out for Santa, and opened perfectly wrapped presents under a tree dripping with tinsel and shiny ornaments.
Oh, how I longed, if not to have a Christmas tree, then at least to get to decorate someone else’s. The one time we made plans to do that, when I was 11 and my parents had just separated, my mom got pneumonia, so we had to cancel. I felt so deflated.
In 2003, at 38, I spent my first Christmas with Brian, the man I would go on to marry (fairly scandalously since he is a non-Jew) a couple of years later. “We” got a tree—although it was officially Brian’s because I still believed I wasn’t allowed to have one—and I had one hell of a great time helping him decorate it. I went completely nuts, buying lots of new ornaments. One night I insisted we sleep on the floor of the living room in his apartment by the glow of the tree. I couldn’t actually sleep. I was, literally, like a kid on Christmas.
🐟 🐟 🐟
That was also the first year of many that I partook in Brian’s Christmas Eve tradition, the Sicilian Feast of the Seven Fishes at his sister’s house in Saugerties. Everyone in the family would make a different kind of fish or shellfish, and we’d all converge for a night of eating and singing and merrymaking.
Obviously this Christmas Eve we can’t all gather. Tonight, Brian and I will uphold our end of the tradition alone at home, making a fish dish we like from the Boqueria cookbook. After dinner, we’ll Zoom with some of his family.
I’ve always enjoyed the holiday with Brian and his family, and appreciated being included in something I’d always felt painfully excluded from. Regardless, though, I’ve always felt a residual sadness. This year I feel even sadder, especially when I think of people who usually travel to celebrate with their families and can’t this year…or the kids whose favorite holiday is hampered…the friends who are all alone…and, much worse, those who have lost family members to this awful virus. Is anyone not sad this Christmas?
Because of the pandemic and sheltering in place, I’ve missed most of the onslaught of Christmas music traditionally piped into stores beginning the day after Thanksgiving, and I haven’t minded one bit. I did hear Joni Mitchell’s “River” in the car on the way to the supermarket the other day. It has more resonance and poignance than ever before. That minor chord treatment of “Jingle Bells” at the beginning and the end…it captures how I’ve always felt on Christmas, but never more so than this year.
What a time. Wishing you all the happiest holiday possible in this miserable year. If you’re struggling, I recommend arts and crafts as a kind of therapy.
Growing up as one of Jehovah's Witnesses, I also felt that 'outsiderness', and have never fully been able to lay claim to this or any holiday. Thank you for this lovely piece.
This was me growing up! Christmas wasn't our holiday either, so imagine how confused I was when my parents started talking about presents for the grandchildren and having them over to celebrate.