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.