Although my husband and I dated for many years before marrying, it wasn't until we made our relationship "official" that I spent Christmas with his family. The easy part was that there was no pressure from my own family to spend Christmas with them, since as Jews, of course, we didn't celebrate the holiday. The hard part was that this was all so alien to me. I had never been to a Christmas Mass, decorated a Christmas tree, or eaten a traditional Christmas dinner.
Growing up in a town that was 90 percent Jewish, I always thought of Christmas as somebody else's holiday, celebrated in other places. Sometimes on Christmas Eve my mom and I would drive to the non-Jewish neighborhoods and look at all the houses decorated with bright lights. We discussed which ones were tacky versus tasteful and how we might decorate our house if we were celebrating the holiday.
But now I was going to be faced with the religious aspects of Christmas, participating in rituals that were foreign to me and would accentuate how different my background was from my husband's. My first surprise was when we got to my in-law's house. I was somewhat disappointed to see a fake Christmas tree, rather than the real thing. Even my husband was critical of the imposter tree. Nevertheless, the house looked festive with Christmas decorations, including wreaths, miniature nativity scenes, Christmas dishes and mugs.
On Christmas Eve, we had dinner with the family, which always meant about twenty people including my husband's four brothers, one sister, and all of their spouses and children. Although the gifts were usually exchanged on Christmas morning, there was some gift giving that evening so that Grandma and Grandpa could give their presents to the grandchildren, who would be at their own homes Christmas morning. I was shocked at how wildly the kids ripped open their presents. And, the parents had to remind the younger ones to say "thank you" to Grandma and Grandpa. I had always assumed that Catholic children had respect for this holiday drilled into them from day one so that they would recognize its true meaning. On the other hand, I was relieved to see that Catholic kids were like all others--they loved receiving presents, no matter what the occasion. However, the adults did try to reinforce the religious meaning for the children. So, after the presents were opened, a birthday cake was served to celebrate "Jesus Christ's" birthday. I respected this effort, but it was my first of several awkward feelings that holiday.
Later that evening, I was sort of hoping we'd go to Midnight Mass just so I could see what it was like. I had always heard it was a beautiful service, and to venture out that late would have felt adventurous, rather than religious. But my husband's family preferred going on Christmas day. My sister-in-law insisted that we all go to the 4 p.m. children's Mass at the church to which her family belonged.
On Christmas morning we exchanged gifts. Amusingly enough, my father-in-law was like an impatient kid, wanting to open gifts as soon as we finished breakfast. Four o'clock came upon us, and although I had been to some Catholic weddings with my husband, this was our first true holiday Mass together. I felt okay about it until it was time to kneel. I continued sitting on the bench while everyone around me kneeled to pray. I looked at my husband and felt so far away from him. He looked so childlike. It was the only time in all our years together when I questioned, albeit only for a second, our decision to marry. This was the one thing we could never ever do together. I sat very still and waited for him to come back up to the bench. The rest of the Mass seemed fine, and even touching. At one point the children's choir sang, and later on, presents that were brought for other less privileged children were collected at the front of the church. It wasn't until it was time for communion that that uneasy feeling returned. I remained seated and everyone had to climb over me to get to the aisle to wait in line for the wafer. Again, I had that isolated, far-away feeling that made me feel so different from everyone else. Suddenly, I heard a whisper to my right. It was my brother-in-law's wife. She had remained seated, too, and said to me, "It's nice to have company for a change." I smiled and felt so much better that I wasn't alone after all. I knew she wasn't Jewish, but she also wasn't Catholic, so she didn't participate in this part of the Mass either.
After Mass, we all headed over to my sister-in-law's house for the traditional Christmas meal: homemade ravioli, homemade bread, and, of course, a baked ham. While many Jews tend to shy away from or avoid ham altogether, I like it. But, I also felt weird, almost guilty that I was eating it. Before we began eating, grace was said, but I just bowed my head, trying not to stand out by being silent.
My sister-in-law's house was decorated quite beautifully, with elegant but not overdone Christmas ornamentation throughout. I was also relieved to see they had a real Christmas tree. It was lofty, smelled delicious, and was trimmed with ornaments that their four children had made themselves throughout their years of growing up. I was truly moved by this and thought it was a wonderful way to honor the holiday.
Christmas will never be "my" holiday and I may never feel completely comfortable with it, but I hope that with my husband and our children, it can be our way to affirm love, family, hope and peace, together.