Sometimes I wonder what it is about this holiday that I find lacking in my life. I have recently come to the realization that Christmas holds no religious significance to me. Now, before you all decide to vilify me, let me clarify that I am Jewish. So of course, Christmas would not have any such religious significance. Yes, I used to be Christian, and yes, I used to celebrate Christmas, but there is nothing in the religious aspects of the holiday that I miss.
So what is it? As I sat here at home, today, watching absolutely nothing on television, including movies I've seen a hundred times, listening to my husband and my daughter argue with each other (as well as a three year old can argue, I suppose), I tried to remember what it was about the holiday that I liked so much and what was missing. The first thing that comes to mind is the tree - there is something about the Christmas tree, all decorated and sitting in a corner somewhere, lights twinkling. There is the anticipation of seeing the gifts piled underneath, wondering what is in those packages and waiting to be able to open then. From there, you can migrate to various decorations and holiday decor that simply do not appear in a Jewish home. So maybe it's those things that I miss. Of course we don't have a tree, but I still have my wreaths, done up with dreidels and gelt, and I have my Winnie the Pooh holiday village. I have some blue and white lights up, which helps. So maybe it's not the decorations, although there is something to be said about sitting in a completely dark room with no lights on other than the tree.
My main memories of the holidays center around the tree decorating (which usually took place on Christmas Eve), the gifts under the tree, and 2 family dinners. On Christmas Day, we would always go to Grandma Norton's. On the Saturday after Christmas, we would go to Grandma Wolf's house. Both dinners were usually filled with alot of people, although the Wolf house was generally much fuller. As I got older, and into high school, the numbers at the Norton's dwindled. When we moved into the house in Jefferson, suddenly the dinner got shifted and we had it at mom's house instead. Still the tree and the gifts and a crazy dog or two running about, but at mom's. The Wolf house was generally full. My dad was one of 11 kids and at one point, all of my aunts and uncles were married. I'm one of 26 first cousins (or maybe it's 24, I can never remember.) At least 10 or 15 of us grew up pretty much around each other, and back in the day, we were all usually at Grandma's house for Christmas.
These days, holidays are small. Even with Rob's extended family, the most we have had at a gathering is 9 or 10. That's nothing compared to the 40 or 50 that could sometimes be found at Grandma's house. It's hard to explain, but there's a certain comfort in the underlying hum of the chatter of that many people, of the ripple of laughter that seems to flow through the house. And who can forget the smell of all of that food. I remember that it was always up to my mom to bring the cookies, and so we would load up several large cookie platters and take them over They'd be placed in the basement, on the top of Grandma's sewing cabinet, for when we did gifts. (The tree was always in the basement, and so that is where everyone gathered after dinner.) Combine the smell of the tree, whatever had been on the stove all day, and add to it the smell of the fireplace (if we could convince someone to light it), and you had the makings of Christmas.
These days, holidays seem somewhat empty, probably because the family is so far away. I have come to learn that my mom doesn't have the same memories of the holidays that I do, and apparently was never much for the family gatherings. I knew she never liked the Wolf gatherings much (or at least, that is how it looked, when she would find a nice corner to deposit herself in and spend the evening there), but I at least thought that she liked her own family gatherings. Maybe it's because her parents are gone, but for some reason, she has no feelings whatsoever about family dinners.
So it was just us, Rob and B and I, hanging out at home. I went to the grocery store, just for that human contact, and to rekindle some of those old memories too, of something for dinner that had inevitably been forgotten, of the quick trip to the store for the whipped cream or the cranberry sauce, or one more potato. We had our candles and a few gifts, because Christmas happened to fall during Hanukkah this year, but it wasn't quite the same as waking up early in the morning to run downstairs and check out the loot under the tree.
I struggle with this whole thing, once a year. Then the decorations get put away, the lights all wound up, and the cookies all eaten. The ache goes away a bit and I moe on to Valentine's Day and Passover, and into the summer months. I forget for awhile that the family is so far away, as we get wrapped back up in life. For some reason, it is really only at this time of the year that I long for those days when I couldn't walk 6 inches without tripping over a cousin, or an aunt or uncle, when we would snuggle in bed trying to warm up, waiting for Santa to come. I'm not sure why, but I'm working on it.
In the meantime, I try to replace the family gatherings with the gatherings of friends, with holiday parties, and with lots of food and cookies. Someday I might figure this thing all out.