I love you no matter what you celebrate–or don’t

by Leah McClellan

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I don’t do Christmas.

It all started when I was 17. I had been working for a few months as a waitress in a mountain resort hotel where they offer room and board for employees. It was a great solution to my homeless situation as well as a job; I had left home for good at 15, and there wasn’t much work in my small Pennsylvania town. At least, not enough to pay for a roof over my head.

I had been counting on the iffy good will of older friends for too long. It was hard. It was a bad scene always littered with drugs and alcohol and party, party, party, and I needed to be on my own and get a life.

A hotel in the Catskill mountains of New York was my next move when the first resort in Pennsylvania didn’t work out. A helpful cook at my old job hooked me up with the maître d’, and I was off and running. I probably lied about my age, as I often did back then, and somehow I got the job. Before I knew it, I was making $500 a week or more in tips though I bit my nails down to blood and worked my butt off in three separate shifts each day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

A day off during the busy summer season was a fantasy. Within a few months, I was promoted to the highest position possible: the so-called family station. It was a high honor, and it meant I served not only the owners of the hotel every day but also their friends and guests as well as regulars who wanted the best server in the dining room.

I was thrilled, overwhelmed, and much too lacking in confidence to ask for a day off. I worked for months straight without a break, and since it was a kosher-style hotel that catered to a Jewish clientele, I couldn’t imagine getting time off to go home for Christmas. So I didn’t ask.

Besides, there wasn’t any “home.” My mom had disappeared (she had got herself in rehab after years of alcoholism and domestic violence), my younger brothers and sisters were in foster homes, and my stepfather was his usual shell-shocked or otherwise troubled self who sort of just existed or fought back rather than make anything happen.

There was no home and no Christmas to go to, so I worked.

I had a life. I had a roof over my head, I had friends, I loved Jewish food, and the Jewish holidays were cool. I was well-fed and cared for, in a way. I remember being sad, but what could I do? I had a lot to be grateful for, and a lot of work to do to take care of myself.

The following year I had my own apartment and a car. My family was back together, more or less, and I planned on spending Christmas with them. I bought all seven brothers and sisters, parents, and friends carefully chosen gifts. Unfortunately, my apartment was robbed.

I quickly replaced all the gifts, but they were poor substitutes. I had already spent almost every cent I had, and there wasn’t much left.

It wasn’t long before I moved again, to a small city not far from my home town, and I finally got myself back to school. Life was good, though often stressful. By this time, I was not only an experienced food server, but I’d also spent a year as an assistant chef, so I knew restaurants and hotels like the back of my hand. I was able to work full time, make enough money for a decent living situation, and go to college as well.

But I couldn’t afford to buy Christmas presents for everyone I knew.

One year, as I charged the last gift to a credit card I couldn’t afford, I felt like an over-decorated Christmas tree blowing out a circuit.

Back then, I didn’t know how to set limits or tell people I had to take care of myself and my goals. Especially not my family—talking about anything personal was never handled very well by any of them, and I couldn’t handle the inevitable complications and emotional backlash. So I bought and went broke.

I paid off the credit card bill eventually, but I was burnt out on Christmas.

At some point, my mom started a pollyanna gift exchange, which worked well for a time. Exchange names! Buy for only one person in my family! Great!

By the time I was in my 30s, though, and married, the politics just got weird.

I had to divvy my time between in-laws in Germany and my family here in the states.

I took care to let my mom know what was up and call her when I was away—by this time we had formed a somewhat friendly relationship—but it was always hard to talk to her. She seemed more fascinated that I could call her from across the Atlantic than the fact that I was calling her to say I love you and I hope you’re having a nice holiday.

Something was weird. Something was wrong.

The next year, I invited my much-younger sister to spend time with me just before Christmas. She was so excited about the family gift exchange, and she excitedly told me about the gift she had bought for someone and wondered who had got her name.

I was dumbfounded. I hadn’t been invited to take part. Why was she talking about it without seeming to realize that I hadn’t had an opportunity to pick someone’s name and have my name picked? Why wasn’t I included?

When I called my mom to ask about it, her response was “You were in Germany last year.” The price of tea in China came to mind. I didn’t get it—I’m slow like that sometimes.

There’s never been a point in trying to discuss anything beyond the weather with my mom—she’ll only freak out and think I’m criticizing her, which in this case I probably would have been—so I let it go.

And I let go of Christmas even more.

My ex-husband and I had a few lovely Christmas celebrations together, but it was only about gift giving, spending money, and having fun—or trying to. I did my best to create holiday traditions for us, but it felt meaningless. Neither of us belonged to a church, neither of us were Christians, active or otherwise, and after a few years of the old dual-income, no-kids thing, neither of us had any material wants.

I had so much stuff I didn’t know what to do with it all. He bought me anything I’d ever admired in a shop window—I soon learned to keep my mouth shut. And I had a big yard sale last summer.

In the five years since I’ve been divorced, I haven’t celebrated Christmas. Or at least not much.

It’s partly because I haven’t had much positive experience with the whole institution. Even as a kid, before my parents’ alcoholism and abuse and all that got really bad, it was never a fun time. Maybe it was fun when I was really young, pre-stepfather, when my mom and me and my older sister lived with an aunt and uncle. Those were tranquil, blissful days of early childhood when the world was an easy place.

But later on, Christmas was mostly about watching my parents freak out over tangled Christmas tree lights, being good, grateful children like we saw on TV or read about in books, and never complaining in hopes that my parents wouldn’t end up fighting or turning on us.

Sometimes when there was hardly any money for presents at all, which was most years, my mom wrapped up a few things the best she could in some colorful old kitchen curtains. A paperback novel was a treasure one year—Miriam, a story about a Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied Oslo, Norway. It wasn’t my present—it was my sister’s—but it was treasured nevertheless and read many times. I don’t remember what my gift was, but somehow I understood that story very well.

Christmas has never been about anything much for me except trying to deal with it and trying to do what it seems we’re supposed to do with it.

And the messages have been confusing: when I was 16, some of my more well-heeled friends thought it was a blast to go to Christmas Eve candlelight mass tripping out on acid.

The celebration of the birth of Jesus—that’s beautiful. I love Jesus. I know what he taught—I’ve read the biblical accounts many times. He and the Buddha taught basically the same thing, and I’m sure they’d be friends if they met.

But I don’t feel like I’m honoring Jesus by buying presents for people, in general. I don’t honor Jesus and his teachings by receiving gifts, necessarily. I honor him by trying to follow his example and what he tried to teach as best as I can. To be loving and kind toward others. To live a peaceful, compassionate life in all ways, as best as I can. To be peaceful within myself.

What would Jesus do? How would he handle this or that situation? What would the Buddha say? What would his advice be here?

Following—or trying to follow—what Jesus taught isn’t easy. And you don’t have to be a Christian to see the wisdom of his words.

But celebrating Christmas doesn’t have to be about gifts and pumping up the retail side of the economy, though that’s what many of us who celebrate Christmas here in the US focus on. And it doesn’t have to be about mad dashes around to get everything done and the traffic and the stress and all that and hoping your turkey or ham is done just right to impress whoever.

Christmas, as it’s celebrated in the US—in general—isn’t even about Jesus, which is fine as far as I’m concerned, really, since a winter celebration around the time of the solstice has been celebrated by so many for so many centuries. Why not?

For whatever reason, eat, drink, and be merry. It’s pretty dark out there, and we might as well brighten things up with some light.

Christmas, really, is about what we’ve made it. It’s so much about advertising and cultural expectations that have developed in the last 150 years or so. It’s about Hallmark. It’s about Campbell’s Soup Company—if you’re into that green bean–canned mushroom soup casserole dish thing they call a Christmas tradition. Do people really eat that stuff? At least my mom cooked real food.

It’s cool to have a winter holiday celebration, whatever it’s called. And I’m cool with the Christmas thing, to an extent, but what if you don’t celebrate? What if you don’t get it, and you don’t have the easy excuse of being Jewish or Muslim or something? Not that anyone ever stops to think that I might be Jewish, even with the name “Leah” in a community where I’m within walking distance of a couple of synagogues.

No big deal. I’m learning to just go along with it.

What if you understand “Christmas spirit” as an obsessive desire to decorate a house and buy a tree and buy gifts and do whatever the culture says we’re supposed to do at a certain time of the year? What if you’re on the outside looking in or on the inside looking out?

Did you know that Santa is skinny in Germany? At least the Santas I met. Did you know that Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was invented only 75 years ago?

It’s not easy to decide to do things differently than how the dominant culture does things.

It’s not easy to pick and choose and decide to do some things whether or not anyone else does them—and maybe join in. Or not. By conscious decision.

Forget about Christmas and my experience for a moment.

Is there anything in your life that you might need to do differently, no matter how others do it and how heavy the peer pressure or cultural expectations?

Anything you might want to question?

No matter what you do or don’t do, and no matter what holiday you celebrate or don’t celebrate, I don’t care. I love you anyway. I love you because of it. I love you in spite of it. I love you for it. I love you just because you’re you—I love you not just today, but any day of the year.

Enjoy your holiday—or not, in case you don’t celebrate any or don’t celebrate what I don’t. Or do. Who cares? I love you.

Photo credit: L.C. Nøttaasen

Comments are always welcome.

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{ 9 comments }

Sharon Lippincott

Oh, I so get this, and so agree. Our family is scattered all over the map. Some do Christmas, some don’t. We sort of do, but not collectively. We aren’t dysfunctional or generally weird. We just don’t get into Christmas the American Way. I enjoy the season, because other people get so frenzied that things slow down and I have personal space. I set up a couple of tiny trees because the lights are pretty, and listen to carols because I enjoy hearing traditional music like that for a few days each year. But Christmas and Christ? Not. The roots are totally pagan. And so is most overindulging behavior. I smile and wish everyone a very merry Christmas if they celebrate it, and explain that we keep things low key. Nobody has time to wonder. I wouldn’t change a bit of it, or take away the traditions of others, grumble as they do. That’s their choice. Thanks for this refreshing take on the season. Nice to hear from a kindred spirit.
Sharon Lippincott´s last [type] ..The Perfect Christmas Tree

Leah McClellan

Hi Sharon! Very interesting to read how things are for you at this time of year. Love what you say about things slowing down and getting personal space–Christmas day is always so quiet! Not just in the usual way but there’s a certain stillness while so many people are busy indoors–very peaceful. Yes, the basis of Christmas is pagan; it’s such an interesting story how it all evolved. As time goes on, I feel much more peaceful with all the holiday or Christmas greetings–I haven’t always been. Love what you say about “nobody has time to wonder.” So true! Glad to know a kindred spirit too :)

And glad to read your post about the perfect Christmas tree! Love it–I’m not the only one who talks to trees!? I would have felt the same way :)

Sharon Lippincott

Oh, wow. I see my last blog post about The Perfect Christmas Tree shows there. That may seem contradictory with what I say in the comment above. Don’t be fooled. That story was written years ago. Today our tree is tiny, and it still doesn’t drop needles. :-)
Sharon Lippincott´s last [type] ..The Perfect Christmas Tree

Lauren

My family didn’t celebrate Christmas growing up; we followed the dictates of the Worldwide Church of God and they said Christmas was based on pagan origins. Bad, bad, I thought. Later though, we started celebrating a little. I love Christmas myself: the lights, the decorations, finding gifts my family enjoys, spending Xmas eve with friends and Christmas with my husband’s family and doing the gift exchange thing. The Jesus thing? Not so much. I don’t affiliate with any religion because beliefs are naturally limiting. Why do I want to limit myself? Christmas is about what you want it to be. My mother doesn’t care for it anymore and three of my brothers don’t care, either. I’m about what makes you feel positive as an individual. We don’t rack up credit card debt to try to give presents to everyone, either. I’m about doing what is meaningful to one’s own family nor what everyone else is doing. Healing the planet starts with healing one’s self.

Leah McClellan

Hi Lauren, Thanks for sharing–I’ve known some Christian folks who believe as you say about not celebrating Christmas for the same reasons. Nice that you decided to celebrate a little in your own way. I like the lights too! I put some up last year, just some simple white candles in the windows, but I skipped it this year. I enjoy looking at all the lit up houses though, and I still have a closet full of decorations–maybe one of these days. I know what you mean about limiting yourself–pretty much the same here. I’m open to wisdom whatever the source. And this: “Healing the planet starts with healing one’s self” is exactly how I look at things–love the way you put it, and maybe this is a good time of year to think on that for everyone :)

Wendy Krueger

Hi Leah:
Every year is different. I have had nice Christmases and boring ones as well. I think there is a lot of emphasis put on the holidays, but it can be enjoyed in different ways and one way is not better than the other. I have no big plans this year, preferring to visit family in March away from the chaotic Christmas travel. I am just using the time to catch up on things, get organized and think about what I want to create in 2012.

I was reminded of the spirit of giving and Christmas today as I was leaving the parking lot of one of our shopping centers. I saw an Indian family. The father had an injured hand and was holding a sign. While I couldn’t read it clearly, I felt compelled to repark and walk over. He had lost his job and had three kids to support. His wife was in a sari and his kids were standing nearby. I handed him some money and felt the welling up of tears in my eyes. I have definitely had my ups and downs in the past few years, but i couldn’t imagine what it must be like for this family and for the father not being able to support his family. In those moments I was reminded of what Christmas is all about – to support one another.
- Wendy
Wendy Krueger´s last [type] ..500 Miles Across Spain

Leah McClellan

Hi Wendy, It’s always been pretty different each year for me, too. Who knows? Maybe I’ll do something more once again in the future. I know what you mean about “chaotic Christmas travel.” Been there done that way too many times, and even driving around locally in the last few days has felt really risky! It’s crazy around here.

I love your story about the father and his family–well it’s sad and made tears come to my eyes too. I would have done exactly the same thing; it’s hard for me to ignore the homeless and beggars in Philadelphia when they’re asking for a handout, though I pick and choose who I give to. And I’m sure I would have given as much as I could to the people you met. And I agree: that’s pretty much the spirit of Christmas! :)

Gwen

Hi Leah, Appreciate your honesty in this post. Thanks for sharing. Whatever you and your animals chose to do today, hope you had a great time together! Gwen

Leah McClellan

Hi Gwen, Thanks for stopping by! We had a lovely day–a long walk in the park with the dogs and treats for all, including my cat’s favorite: fresh shrimp. I suppose that’s sort of a Christmas celebration :) Hope your holiday season is nice as well!

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