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Julie Gardner, an intermarried mother of two boys, will be writing a monthly column about her Jewish journey. Julie lives in San Francisco and was raised without a religious tradition.
Had I consciously thought this Christmas tree might be my last, I might have given it more reverence, paid special attention to its lights and decorations. I might have welcomed its pine scent and majestic presence in my home. Instead, I felt mildly annoyed by the entire ritual--the expense of an overly large spruce dominating the living room, its drooping branches and dead pine needles littering the floor.
Christmas, this year, seemed to be one more task, following too closely on the footsteps of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. In my home, we celebrate both Jewish and Christian holidays. Increasingly, the duties of planning, shopping, cooking, baking, wrapping, decorating, etc., have fallen into my realm of responsibilities and have grown in size and scope, as has my family.
Still, even with the requisite work required, the yearning for all things Christmas--a decorated tree, lights in the house, home-baked goodies, beautiful packages, swags of greenery, and stockings hung on the mantel--has an overwhelming appeal for me that is hard to relinquish.
I feel the same about alcohol. I liked its familiarity, the feel of the wine glass in my hand, its color, its smell, its quality, its soothing, calming effect. I liked the ease of conversation, the flirtatiousness, daring, and laughter it brought out in me. I intellectually knew it was time to change my drinking behavior when my twin sister ran into trouble with alcohol, but the desire to stay with what was tried and true, what was known and intimately understood, has been difficult to let go. I believe I have now successfully quit drinking, but the truth is, I frequently notice its absence. Alcohol is gone, but not forgotten. Can I honestly give up Christmas and not notice its overwhelming absence? As with alcohol, I'm not exactly sure how I shall fill the holiday void.
I suppose it is because Christmas is a kind of metaphor for kindness in my mind; a time when my own family seemed to pull together and celebrate the holidays with flare. My mother sent out greeting cards, decorated the house (inside and out), sent off Christmas packages, and managed to get us most of our Christmas wish list, within reason. We sang carols, baked cookies, mulled cider, and hosted parties. And Santa Claus... Santa Claus was the hope that even though Mom and Dad could not afford a new bike for my sister and me, they might magically appear on Christmas morning, regardless. (How does one compensate when no Hanukkah Man exists?)
Christmas morning was, of course, the zenith of everyone's hopes, desires, saved allowances, and hard work. The first child to see dawn would wake the other five, and we would sit with baited breath at the top of the stairs in our new pajamas, robes and slippers (we had been allowed to open them on Christmas Eve), waiting for my father's signal to descend.
Slowly, slowly, very slowly he would allow us to move down the stairs one at a time, until he gave us his final approval and we would jump the remaining stairs, run into the living room, find our designated stockings and begin a three-hour marathon that included presents, cinnamon rolls, orange juice (gin fizzes for the oldest among us), and finally breakfast.
As my older sisters married and had children, their husbands and kids joined the celebration, expanding the festivities to increasingly larger proportions. At some point, families began to move on and create their own Christmas traditions, divorce took its toll (so did alcohol), and my mother and father sold the family home we had all grown up in, and moved away.
This Christmas my husband received a gift from our elder son, Case, who is eight-and-a-half years old. The card read, "I don't know whether to wish you Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah." Until his stark admission, I had fooled myself into believing that my kids related to themselves as Jews. As with drinking, denial is the tool that lets one celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah side by side and fool oneself into believing that the children understand the distinction. That one can easily deny the significance of the birth of Christ, but recognize the prominence of Santa Claus seems silly, even to me. As with drinking, it is time to abstain.
So here I am, needing to create my own family traditions and memories, and not knowing how; needing to fill a void, and not recognizing with what to replace it; wanting to feed my soul, without the knowledge or wisdom to help it soar; wishing to say good-bye, but afraid to let go. Here I am.