Republished: December 9, 2010
I woke up shivering in the pitch dark. As I gathered the blankets more tightly around me, I saw that the clock read 5:45. I was so excited, I wasn't sure how I would manage to stay in bed until it was a decent waking hour. I knew I'd never be able to fall back asleep, but I wasn't sure what to do with myself. You see, it was my first time celebrating Christmas, with the man I'm now married to. Despite being 20 years old, quite happy in my Jewish upbringing and identification and fully confident that Santa is a fictional character, I couldn't wait to get up and be a part of my boyfriend's family celebration.
On December 25 my family could usually be found at the movie theater, followed by Chinese takeout for dinner. There was that one time that I was admitted to the hospital for a tonsillectomy the next morning, but that's a story for another time. Growing up in New York I was surrounded by other Jews, and children of varied religions and ethnicities. Sometimes I was resentful of Christmas being the dominant cultural theme in December, but mostly I was secure in my identity. I don't recall ever pining for a Christmas tree, or wishing for Santa.
December of 1990 was my first chance to see Christmas from the inside. I'd been at Erik's home the weekend or two prior, when his family decorated the tree. I loved their handmade ornaments, personalized felt stockings and the collection of wooden Norwegian Santas and elves. I learned how delicious a real Fraser fir smells. I picked my gifts carefully, a watch for Erik, some nice candles and candlesticks for his parents, some bath products for his sisters. I packed my bags for the trip from Staten Island to Stamford, Conn., and said goodbye to my sister and mother. They too would be sharing in someone's Christmas for the first time, and we looked forward to comparing notes at the end of the holiday.
I accompanied Erik and his family to Christmas Eve services at their church. Afterwards, family friends came over for a gift exchange. As a very welcome fire burned, beautifully wrapped gifts were loaded under the tree. The gifts made a big impression on me, because I can remember exactly one wrapped Hanukkah present in my childhood. (The wrapped gift? A much anticipated and played with Barbie styling head.) Most of my Hanukkah memories include the image of my parents re-entering a room after the candle lighting, hiding gifts behind their backs. Sometimes the gifts were given to us in paper grocery bags or even a black plastic trash bag. My sister and I never questioned this tradition, we were perfectly excited to receive gifts, and I don't think we ever really worried about the lack of wrapping paper. Yet my Christian friends' eyes would go wide upon hearing this. They couldn't imagine receiving unwrapped gifts! So the bounty of ornate packages was definitely a sight to see. I went to bed happy to be with Erik and his family, and eager for the next day's festivities.
So there I lay, before dawn on the morning of December 25. I may have gotten a few more winks of sleep, but mostly I tossed and turned. I laughed at myself, feeling like a 5-year-old who couldn't wait to tear into the presents. Finally I heard someone walk down the hall, and I knew I could get out of bed. As per family tradition, we opened stockings first, took a break for breakfast and then moved on to opening the other gifts. I was nervous and excited. I can still picture myself sitting in their living room, waiting to give out my gifts. As much as I enjoy receiving presents, I love giving gifts even more. What could be more fun than watching someone open a gift that you specially chose for them? I remember all eyes being on me as I opened my gift from Erik, a beautiful Roman intaglio pendant. I exhaled in relief when Erik opened my gift and I could see that he liked it. One of the last gifts I opened was a family tradition any chocoholic could get behind: Erik's father buys a box of Godiva chocolate for each woman in the family.
I have continued to enjoy celebrating Christmas with Erik's family. We've been married for 14 years, and have been parents for the last nine. Our children are Jewish and understand that we particpate in Christmas, and other Christian holidays, along with their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins not as believers but as guests. My son, who is 9, enjoys helping to keep the magic of Santa alive for his cousins. He reminds the grownups to cut a piece out of the gingerbread house on Christmas Eve and to leave a note so that the other kids believe Santa took a bite. The wooden Santas are out on display, the hand-sewn stockings have been joined by new ones for the grandkids. Ornaments made by my in-laws' mothers are joined by ornaments made by the grandchildren. And I'm still one of the first ones awake on Christmas morning.