Hello, readers! I had been wanting to make a Christmas/holiday post, and I finally did it—and in typical Leah fashion since Christmas was six days ago. I’m not letting that fact deter me. I started writing this entry in my composition book the day after Christmas, and it ended up being two and a half pages on Word because I have A LOT to say about this topic. After the few rounds of edits it takes for me to be brave enough to release my posts into the wild, it’s ready for you to read…
It’s the day after Christmas. While most people are still spending time with loved ones, I spent the day at a park in Madrid petting stray cats and snapping photos of the wild peacocks that live there. Now, I know what you’re thinking: I would MUCH rather spend the day doing that than listen to my mother-in-law, tipsy on her third glass of Pinot Grigio, tell the same story for the hundredth time or watch my spoiled nephew take selfies on his new iPhone X. To which I say, I hear you. That doesn’t sound like the greatest day to me, either. However, I still would have preferred obnoxious extended family over my holidays this year, as they were a whole new level of strange—and not just because of the peacocks.
It might help if you knew a little more about my background to understand why the holidays have always been odd. I’m the only child of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father.
Upon learning of my mixed background, the question that 9/10 follows is: “So do you celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah?”
My reply is always along the lines of: “Yes, growing up I did Hanukkah with my dad and Christmas with my mom.”
This answer, although true, is so much more complex than that.
Yes, as a kid, my dad taught me how to light the menorah, say the prayers, and then we exchanged presents. (The more timid, awkward people I’ve had the “holiday talk” with let the conversation die there. The bolder, more inquisitive folks always ask the thousand-dollar question: “So did you get presents for Christmas AND Hanukkah?” To which I’d say, “Only on the first and last nights.” This would either A: Get me a nod of approval that I wasn’t a spoiled brat, or B: Get me a fleeting look that I was a moron for not exploiting this potential present loophole.)
On the same night, my mom and I might bake Christmas cookies, decorate the tree, or watch the Charlie Brown Christmas special on TV.
My responses during the “holiday talk” are always short, practiced, and robotic, and they portray my parents as such. Anyone who comes from a house with mixed cultures and/or practices can contest that an overlap or gray area has to exist for harmony to also exist. The easiest way for me to illustrate this idea is with this Venn Diagram (that took me embarrassingly long to create) below:
As you can see, my mom and what she did to celebrate Christmas is the black space, while my dad and what he did to celebrate Hanukkah is the white space. That gray area in between—those actions my parents took—are how my house didn’t explode during the month of December. Because my dad happily hung up lights outside and my mom saw my dad’s side of the family for Hanukkah, I got to experience “the best of both worlds” growing up.
Again, I know what you’re thinking: What part of any of this is weird, Leah? That sounds absolutely lovely.
Yes it was, dear readers, except for a couple details I haven’t yet mentioned:
- No one was Jewish at my school/in the area I lived. I was one of fifteen Jews in my high school of 2,500 students (and that’s highballing the number).
My area wasn’t hateful, but many kids/parents didn’t speak too kindly about Jewish people (probably due to ignorance because there weren’t—and still aren’t— many around). I learned around age 12 to keep the fact that I’m half-Jewish to myself.
- Because my mom’s never had a good relationship with her family, I spent every Christmas with my Jewish family.
I was always so envious of people I knew spending Christmas with dozens of relatives, their homes festively decorated while they watched Home Alone with the fireplace going. From early childhood until age sixteen, I would celebrate Christmas morning with both of my parents. My dad would do everything he could to squeeze into the gray area (e.g. make me pancakes, allow my mom to play Christmas music on the radio, keep the tree lit all morning) because by early afternoon we’d be over at his sister’s with all of that Christmas magic left behind.
I remember crying when I was little, not wanting to kiss goodbye to Christmas at 1 pm while the rest of my classmates had the whole day with their families. Looking back on my childhood, I had some pretty fun Christmases with my family, especially my cousins. Even though there was no Christmas celebration, my aunt and uncle always had a million people over, and I always left smiling instead of moping the way I came.
Christmas has slowly gone downhill over the years. After my grandmother passed away in 2010, my aunt couldn’t bear to open her house to every Jew in our county with nowhere to go on the 25th. Now my aunt and uncle vacation somewhere tropical every year. After my parents split in 2012, my family shrunk and divided even more. The past few Christmases, my mom has gotten angry with me when I’ve spent too much time at my Dad’s (where I live when I’m home), claiming, “This is my holiday, not his. I want you to respect that.”
I wish she could understand the gray area. That one of my earliest memories is my dad sitting with me at 3 am while I opened my stocking and staying awake the rest of the morning because I was too excited to sleep. That my dad was always the one who put the presents under the tree, not her. That I cannot make that clean divide in my mind between black and white because it’s never existed and it never will. Christmas is just as much my dad as it is her.
Fast forward to this Christmas. I spent the day nursing a killer hangover by sleeping till 3 pm. For the first time, I didn’t see my mom or my dad or open a single present. I live with two Muslim roommates, so our apartment remained sparse: no lights, no wreath on the door, no tree. I made a cocoon of myself in bed, trapping all the misery in with my blankets and only leaving to answer the door for the delivery falafel I ordered. The following day, I forced myself to get some fresh air and to shake off all my thoughts of Christmas pasts that held me prisoner the day before.
So I went to my favorite park. I petted the cats. I marveled at the peacocks. I met a nice older couple who’s traveled the world together and just recently moved to Madrid like myself. Was it a normal Christmas? No, not by most people’s standards. But I’ve never really known what a “normal” Christmas is, and that’s kind of the way I like it.
It may have felt a little gloomy, a little gray, but gray is a color with which I am all too familiar.
For now, I’m signing off. I hope you’ve enjoyed the ramblings of my black hole mind.