My husband grew up Jewish, and when we started dating, it fell to me to introduce him to Christmas as full-fledged participant, rather than exasperated outside witness. He couldn’t have chosen a better person to adopt Christmas with. With my cookie-making, casserole-baking, community-volunteering tendencies, I’ve been in bootcamp for Christmas mentorship my whole life.
But even I was unprepared for how much more fun—how defiantly extra—Christmas could be with someone who’d never had it. On a frosty morning in December, my brand-new Christmas Jew and I were the first customers at the neighborhood tree stand. We struggled back to our studio apartment with a tree no less than five feet in diameter, coated it in lights and tinsel, and spent the day sitting on the couch, staring at it.
We were just getting started. Reader, we roasted a Christmas goose. Have you ever tried roasting a goose? Don’t. We ate roasted chestnuts, also disgusting. We went to the Messiah, and my Jewish boyfriend stood up and bellowed “Haaaale-lujah!” with the best of them. We adopted Operation Santa kids, ice skated in Rockefeller Center under the tree, got properly stupefied by the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular. We listened to the funky, utterly bizarre “Al Green Christmas” album on repeat. We sat in a hot tub wearing Santa hats and drinking eggnog, which turned out to be a tactical error.
On Christmas Eve, we watched It’s a Wonderful Life, an experience we both feel is holier than church. Is there anything more volcanically hot than the way Jimmy Stewart nuzzles Donna Reed’s temple while they share a telephone receiver and try not to jump each other? (Answer: No. There is not.)
Christmas, we decided, is for everybody. There is no one group of people with a priority claim on joy, on generosity, on secretly wanting a threeway with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. The best parts of Christmas, the inclusive and delicious and dorky and twinkly and jingly parts, belong to humans—thanks to those much earlier humans who were clever enough to realize that what we really need, in a time of year when it’s otherwise cold and dark, is a giant tree covered in lights.
Take as much joy as you can scoop up,
because like snow, joy is a fragile thing. It melts.
Every year, Christmas comes at a time when we really need it. It’s all about giving and getting and eating and singing, and it makes everybody act like a decent human being for once. Regardless of your background, the good parts of it belong to you, if you want them. The message of Christmas is this: Take as much joy as you can scoop up, because like snow, joy is a fragile thing. It melts.
In the years that followed my husband’s induction into the holiday season, Christmas-with-a-side-of-Hanukkah continued to be our favorite time of year. We were unapologetic over-holidayers. Christmas was an intensely satisfying two-week blitz, after which we smoked a cigarette and got up to shower.
And then we had a kid.
Our daughter is the joy of our life, a small person who—even though she is sometimes a jerk—reminds us not to be jerks. In that way, she is like Christmas, except she never buys us presents because she is eight years old and broke. But she makes presents for us, out of whatever little bits she has lying around, and they are always sweet and a little bit garbagey—again, a lot like Christmas itself.
As it happens, our daughter’s favorite holiday activity is the same as ours: Sitting on the couch with the music on low, staring at the Christmas tree as it blinks back at us.
But now, as parents, there are so many Christmas traditions to observe we need extra time to fit them all in: Getting our retinas seared by the Dyker Heights Christmas lights. Ice skating and drinking cocoa, even though you’re all sweaty from exertion and the last thing you want is a hot drink. Stressing episodes of the “Holiday Baking Championship” together. Setting up an Advent calendar and then promptly forgetting about it. As interfaith parents, we do Hanukkah, too: Frying up latkes, lighting the menorah, unwrapping eight days of presents, gambling for chocolate. (As our daughter observed, “The biggest difference between Hanukkah and Christmas is that Hanukkah makes you work for candy.”)
With our daughter as our enthusiastic teammate, we got our family over-holidaying down to a science, emerging triumphant after New Year’s Day surrounded by torn wrapping paper and pine needles and melted candle wax, with powdered sugar around our mouths and no money for gas.
And then my mother got sick.
My mother loved Christmas, but with the restraint and good sense she brought to most things. She enjoyed getting her grandkids more presents than they could open without going full tweaker, but she left most of the planning and the jingly activities to us. She knew it meant more to us than it did to her.
The holidays had a specific meaning for her, though: what we native Midwesterners call “making things nice.” The first year of my mother’s fight with cancer, my husband and daughter and I arrived at her house the day before Christmas Eve to find her sitting on the couch surrounded by unopened boxes of shipped gifts, the fridge empty, the cupboards bare, the tree and all the Christmas trappings still out in the garage. It looked like the Grinch had fleeced her. She just hadn’t had the energy to deal with any of it, however much she wanted to. She was exhausted, miserable: “I’m sorry I couldn’t make anything nice for you before you got here.”
It was, of course, our privilege and our pleasure to elf the problem away in record time, cleaning and wrapping and shopping and caring for her. Mom couldn’t have chosen a better Christmas SWAT team, with our years of training in precision-choreographed over-holidaying. We had a happy, quiet Christmas, most of which she spent on the couch, bundled up in a blanket, drifting in and out of sleep.
In the years that my mom was dying, for the first time, I knew what people meant when they said Christmas was stressful, painful, too much.But we needed it. God, we needed loveliness and joy and the smell of cinnamon candles. We needed “making nice,” so badly. It was the darkest season and we needed light.
I feel like I need to explain where it comes from, this insistence on seeking light in dark places. It comes from my mother. In her lifetime, my mother survived some crushing tragedies and setbacks—this wasn’t even her first bout with cancer—but the relentless catalog of dark times, so far from crushing her, made her stronger. She worked her way to the top of her industry in a fulfilling, forty-year career, got two daughters through college on her own, traveled, partied, and made meaningful friendships. She loved living in California, where she’d moved for work, and where she once commented, “I’m lucky to have cancer here. Can you imagine dragging yourself in for chemo in a place where it’s not always 65 degrees and sunny?” That kind of comment was pure mom.
This year, we face our first Christmas without my mother. I am struggling. It’s clear what she would want us to do, if only for her grandkid’s sake: Dive in headfirst and not stop singing Christmas carols until we reach the bottom. I don’t know if I can do it. Most days what I really want to do is nap. I am heartbroken. I look around, and everywhere I see complete, healthy, whole families, and I am filled with such bitterness, such unaccustomed hatred. I am in the dark.
My mother would say, put on White Christmas. She would say, feel grateful. You are blessed. You don’t have to have cancer in a place with shitty weather. Yes, bad things have happened to you. But you are not defined by them. You are defined by the light that you find in the dark. What you need, among other things, is a big tree with lights on it.
If there is one group of people with a priority claim on light and joy and generosity and tinsel, on Christmas, it may be the people who really need it. But the truth is, we are all those people. We are living in dark times, and we need to reach for good wherever it can be found, even in twinkly, jingly, dorky over-holidaying.
Joy melts. We should make a big, big pile of it.