Christmas is three days away, and I’m spending my time in pajamas, decorating our tiny tree, baking endless treats, and watching Christmas movies. I love Christmas, or at least, the idea of Christmas–the warm house full of loving family, roasting s’mores in a fireplace, some beautiful dog to follow me around, and a feeling of belonging. In this scenario, everyone is wearing perfect sweaters, and everyone has had just enough alcohol. In a scenario that could most accurately be described as “privileged person problems,” having grown up in an interfaith household has always made Christmas, and the entire month of December, a somewhat fraught experience.
In addition the to the big surprise that someone with a name that ends in -ein even celebrates Christmas, I have always felt a bit like an outsider at Christmas. I’ve celebrated every single year, sometimes with my large, lapsed Catholic family, sometimes with my halfsie nuclear family, and more recently, with my boyfriend and assorted orphans. Although Christmas has never been a religious celebration for my family (we occasionally will attend midnight mass for my grandparents’ benefit), I still have always felt like I don’t belong. I look at my dad and sister and feel awkwardly aware of our voices, our sarcasm, and of our Jewishness.
That’s not to say Christmas is the only exclusionary holiday by any means. I’ve never celebrated a Jewish holiday where I didn’t feel like the awkward man out, not knowing the prayers or customs. I can’t even properly light a menorah to celebrate Chanukah, let alone say the prayers. Once, at a Passover celebration with my Jewish extended family, this precocious eight-year-old future sociopath loudly called me out for being the only one not saying the prayer. I said “I don’t know them,” and he said “Well, you should,” while his parents beamed with pride.
Children are really strange, especially when it comes to religious and cultural institutions. In elementary school, my mostly Jewish and occasional gentile friends would insist that I had to choose one, and I couldn’t possibly be part of both cultures. While I understand that one cannot simultaneously be a religious Jew and Catholic, they were essentially cultural institutions to me, so I couldn’t see why I couldn’t be a part of both. One girl told me I couldn’t come to her bat mitzvah if I still planned to celebrate Christmas. Another said I could come to her Christmas party but there wouldn’t be a menorah, so she wasn’t even sure if I’d want to come. I didn’t understand how something as simple as having parents from two religions translated into such a political statement.
Then again, I suppose it makes sense to feel excluded from religious holidays both Jewish and Catholic, because I technically have claim to neither. Catholicism requires baptism and I was not baptized, and my father cannot pass on Judaism to me, since Judaism is matrilineal. I guess I’m kind of a ship without a flag.
My claim to both religions is largely cultural and convenience-based. Judaism has a significant cultural element that has attached itself to me completely, regardless of my issues with the religion. Catholicism too has a cultural element, although it’s less visible. My Askenazi features, humor, stomach issues, name, and neuroses inescapably mark me as Jewish. But, as my mother (who possibly didn’t think through the implications of raising children as apathetic bothsies) insists, I am also Catholic, in some way.
I suppose this was also complicated by my parents refusal to blend the holidays and what I perceive as an unbalanced system of appeasal from each parent to eachother’s religion. I understand now that their religious upbringings were important to each of them, regardless of their waning beliefs. My sister and I campaigned for Christmukah or Festivus–a tree topped with a menorah and a Christmas fish with latkes on the side, but blending would be unheard of. I think we felt that if we created something new that was all our own, nobody could tell us that we didn’t belong.
December is one of my favorite months. I’m a sucker for holiday cheer, extravagant meals, gift giving, and holiday parties. But in what I think of as the two pillars of December–Chanukah and Christmas–I’m an outsider at both. Creating my own Christmas (like so many people are doing nowadays) is a way to make my own holiday where nobody can tell me to get out.
Photo: The OC (Fox)