We Are Godless & This Is How We Celebrate The Holidays
I never expected the holiday season would become important to me. Growing up, that time of year was a constant source of disappointment. I was raised culturally Jewish but with no religion to speak of, and when my husband and I met, I had no interest in participating in any of it. My husband, a lapsed Catholic with no affinity for football or huge meals, didn’t care about Thanksgiving. But my agnostic husband loved Christmas with an almost childlike wonder. He insisted we celebrate. I resisted. I was uninterested in taking part in what felt like a celebration of greed and consumerism, and because neither of us felt any connection to any religious community, to me there seemed little point. A tree? Unthinkable. I was not going to turn into one of those people with boxes of ornaments in the attic, enthusiastically playing nothing but Christmas music as soon as we change the clocks. But then I did, sort of.
When I grew up, we lived in New York City. My parents spoke with deep Brooklyn accents and Yiddish phrases peppered their vocabulary. We ate bagels with a schmear, watched every Woody Allen movie, and always said mazel tov! instead of congratulations. My father read The New York Times instead of the Torah. We didn’t keep kosher or go to temple regularly. When we remembered to, we lit Hanukkah candles, but never exchanged gifts. We weren’t even Chinese-food-and-movie-on-Christmas Jews. December 25th was just another day. I envied my goyishe friends their busy homes, festive trees, matching pajamas, sugar cookies, big families, and tons of presents. Our apartment felt like a funeral parlor in comparison. Jews were supposed to be all about tradition, but we had none and I felt cheated.
As a young adult, I abandoned the holidays altogether, preferring to use that time to travel abroad. The prices were cheap because everyone else was with family domestically, and I didn’t mind traveling in the cold. I spent many winters in Europe and Scandinavia. I loved immersing myself in other cultures, learning languages and imagining what my life would have been like had I been born anywhere but New York.
We wanted to establish enough tradition and togetherness with them so they’d want to come home for the holidays even once they were grown and had families of their own.
But when Johnny and I got married, my midwinter travel came to a halt. We started our family right away, and to my surprise, the holidays soon felt important to us both. We agreed that they could be an opportunity to reinforce the sense of family and closeness that we wanted our children to feel deep in their bones. We wanted to establish enough tradition and togetherness with them so they’d want to come home for the holidays even once they were grown and had families of their own. We started small, building little things in here and there. Now we have a whole series of traditions that I can’t believe how much I have come to love.
Since my girls were babies, my parents began to spend Thanksgiving with us. Now that we live further away, they come for the whole week. Every year we cook a big vegan meal together and relax. We set up a new puzzle on the coffee table and work at it lazily throughout the week, refilling our mugs of spiced tea or glasses of wine. With the kids, we make our Gratitude Tree: we cut leaves from green card stock and write down one thing we are grateful for on each one. Then we run a string through each leaf and hang it on a collection of decorative branches that lives for the rest of the year in the corner of a room, mostly forgotten. We ignore Black Friday completely and spend that day instead working through leftovers, listening to jazz, and being at home.
On a Saturday in early December, we go out to one of the local farms and have them cut down a tree for us. We have very high ceilings, so we buy the tallest one we can find. We set it up and let it open. The next day, we decorate. We bring the boxes of ornament I swore I would never have down from the attic and after a breakfast of waffles and maple syrup or homemade muffins, the girls — still in their pajamas — help us. That’s when my husband starts the Christmas music. He has a playlist full of the standards and lots of modern takes to keep it interesting. We look at every ornament and remember where it came from or who gave it to us as we sing along. We usually spend the afternoon making sugar cookies and sprinkling them with decorative toppings.
At Hanukkah, we light the candles every night. I still remember the Hebrew blessing over the candles, but I feel uncomfortable saying it, so instead we talk about warmth and light and we give thanks for being together. Our two daughters open a small gift apiece, one for each night. Sometimes it’s a box of markers, sometimes a pair of gloves, a new book or a small toy. Nothing big, but always fun. We spend a weekend day making and eating latkes and talking vaguely about the history of the festival of lights.
On the days leading up to Christmas, our girls fight to be the first one awake to plug in the tree. They love the lights, the warmth, the festivity.
On Christmas Eve, we tuck the girls into bed at the same time as always. There are no cookies for Santa: we don’t bother. Early on, our older daughter wrinkled her nose at the idea of Santa. “Mama is Santa!” she proclaimed, blowing my cover. Then she turned to my husband. “That means Daddy is Mrs. Claus!” she said with glee. That still tickles us both; it’s a job we are both happy to take on.
All year, we write down happy memories on pieces of paper and stick them in a mason jar, that year’s Memory Jar.
As early as October, we start thinking about what the girls need or want that might make for good holiday gifts. We pick them up here and there, tucking everything away in a big box I hide in my closet. Our kids don’t make lists. They prefer to be surprised, and they always are. They get some clothes and shoes, some books, some toys and games, art supplies, and little accessories for their hair or backpacks. I always get them matching pajamas, and I make each of them a booklet of coupons for experiences they love: a movie with Mama, rollerskating with Daddy, a day at the museum, a trip to a chocolate factory or a theme park, an afternoon of baking or a trip to Starbucks for lattes, and an IOU for a toy of their choice when we are there. They have handmade stockings (thank you, Etsy!) that we hang and fill with new pens, stickers and their favorite candy. We spend the evening of Christmas Eve together, wrapping everything, filling the stockings, and watching ridiculous Christmas movies like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation that my husband knows by heart. Then, before we turn in for the night, we take a moment apart to wrap the gifts we got for each other.
Christmas morning is more of the same: sugar cookies and homemade muffins, Christmas music, torn wrapping paper, ribbons and bows everywhere. It is FaceTime with faraway relatives, playing with new games and toys. In homage to the New York Jew I wasn’t quite raised to be, the afternoon brings Chinese food and movies. And when it’s bedtime, the girls are exhausted and happy.
Then there’s New Year’s Eve. All year, we write down happy memories on pieces of paper and stick them in a mason jar, that year’s Memory Jar. On New Year’s Eve, we make a fire and we gather around it. We dump out all the memories and read them out loud, remembering all the best parts of the year we had together. And then it’s bedtime.
The girls are too young to stay up until midnight, so we wish them a happy New Year as we kiss them goodnight, and then my husband and I rekindle the fire and snuggle together, warm and cozy, ready to make new memories to put in the jar.
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