Christmas has been like the Dread Pirate Roberts for much of my life. Just like The Princess Bride character, it took no prisoners, was illusive but widely feared, and mysteriously changed over time.
Growing up Jewish, I remember cleaning my closet on Christmas, passing the day feeling left out of the party, and of course, going out for Chinese food although we tended to go out for Chinese at the drop of a hat. In my teenage years, when my father married into a Catholic family, Christmas morphed into a combination of agony, boredom, and disappointment, punctuated with lasagna and turkey. With a step-mother who made wielded the weapon of gift inequality (one year, one of my step-sibs got a car, albeit a used car, while I got a blow dryer), my insecurity gained more weight than I did from all the holiday cookies.
When I moved out of the house, I dragged Christmas-as-enemy with me, alternating between being the awkward guest in someone else’s show to trying to ignore the deafening roar of all things Christmas all around. I spent many years cursing Christmas music although, like many people, I have my favorites, and I find much of the music sweet and beautiful (not like the dirges of my people, although, given our history, we have our reasons). I rolled my eyes at tinsel, and got easily pissed off when store clerks told me to have a Merry Christmas. I could recite a well-rehearsed diatribe about how this country was founded on the basis of freedom of religion, and people need to remember that not everyone is Christian.
Yet I’ve also been ferried through some lovely Christmas moments: Midnight mass with my Catholic step-family; playing cards with the children of two beloved professors at the University of Missouri, both of whom insisted I needed to spend Christmas with a family; candlelight church services with the Methodist family I married into, holding up my candle and trying not cry when we sang “Silent Night”; singing alternative lyrics to Christmas Carols with friends (“When shepherds washed their socks at night,” which includes the prayer for the lord to make them static-free). I’ve poured out of buses to carol unsuspecting patients in the hospital, wore red ornament earrings a friend gave me, and even sewed my own stocking, zigzag-stitching my name on it.
Time changes us in ways we can’t always imagine. I find myself now actually tuning into a radio station that plays Christmas music (although I switch stations away from it just as often). I helped Ken drag a cedar tree from the field, then bedecked it with Forest, hanging the ornaments my sister-in-law has been giving each of our children for years. I strung lights through bows of cedar on top of the cabinets. But the biggest change is that I’m no longer hanging on for dear life until the relief of Dec. 26.
I’m not sure how I got here, but I suspect it has to do with having friends of many faiths — a variety pack of Buddhists, Hindus, Hare Krishnas, Wiccans, Jews of many stripes, Muslims, and Christians from Episcopalians to Lebanese Orthodox to Evangelicals. There’s also that perspective we gain over time about what matters, and the pettiness of my old Christmas grudge in a life buoyed by a bevy of blessings: a home, meaningful work, loving friends and family. Given how so many suffer at the hands of war, Ebola, displacement, poverty, homelessness, and racism, why gripe about yet another rendition of “Jingle Bells”?
The Dread Pirate Roberts turned out not to be necessarily evil, but just a guy. Christmas is both just a day and a space for great potential to connect with family, friends, light, and mashed potatoes. When people wish me a Merry Christmas, I’m now answering, “You too,” and taking in all the wishes for merry I can get.