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A Very Jewish Christmas

“I’m looking forward to Christmas,” an old friend tells me over the phone. She’s spending it with her Jewish ex-husband and two half-Jewish college-aged daughters. “I love spending Christmas with the Jews.”

The stereotype in America has long been that on Christmas day Jews go out for Chinese food and see a movie. This is one cliché that rings true. After all, as George Clooney says to his young protégé who remains appalled with him throughout almost half of the new film, in Up in the Air, “I stereotype because it’s easier.”

If you live in a small southern town, as I do, going out for Chinese may not be as easy, and catching that Christmas day opening film might have to wait until the late afternoon matinee, but the truth is that Christmas with the Jews —even those who might put up a (pagan-based) tree—is a lot less stressful than it is for so many others.

This year more articles about the stress of the holiday—with its familial obligations, its over-the-top present buying, and its quest for a anti-global warming slant (no tree, to decorations you toss in the trash after it’s over, and no tons and tons of ecologically unfriendly wrapping paper)—have appeared in dozens of publications, the New York Times running its big city slant on it on December 24th. The disappearing economy, the anxiety over the future, and knowledge that stress does actually kill, have sent many scrambling for alternate ways to spend the holiday and the money that goes with it. And there are always the countless stories about putting “the real meaning” back into the holiday.

But as a Jew I have always felt pretty stress-free this time of year. Hanukkah, which if we’re lucky, comes early enough not to overlap, is a minor Jewish holiday, ramped up into its current form by parents trying to compete with Christian parents’ present giving. My family never bought into that so I had no bad role model. I buy and wrap a small present for each night until the kids are old enough not to care (my daughter, at 16, still loves this tradition, so she gets a CD, some mascara, a book, a Starbucks gift card, etc; all collected as I see him and hear her preferences over the year) and then a check to help them start the new year solvent. Then I make as many latkes as is humanly possible, invited friends and family to eat their fill, and spend the next four days smelling frying oil and potatoes in the house. The candles are ritually lit each night, but that’s hardly a burden.

Then we move on. No wrangling over whose house to go to, no worrying about gifts for a dozen nieces and nephews you never see who won’t write thank you notes, no getting on last minute flights in dicey weather, no decorating and un-decorating the house. No having to spend hours with people whom you might not choose to even be friends with. And no worrying about those holiday clothes.

When I was married to my first husband, Christmas was easy. His mother lives in Florida and, as an academic, he got two weeks off for holiday. The kids got time off, too, and so each year we drove down to spend time with her in the (usually) glorious sunshine. Walks on the beach, outings, and a low key Christmas dinner that we all helped prepare. One or more of his sisters and their families would show up but everyone was superbly well-behaved. My mother-in-law decorated the house, we got to enjoy it along with the Florida sunshine, and then we drove back up north to face the last two months of winter’s gloom.  The three years we spent living in Europe Christmas was spent on holiday.

After the divorce, I spent several Christmases alone, which was fine with me. Then, a couple of years ago I married again, a certified atheist who otherwise was nuts about Christmas. He regaled me with tales of its Celtic origins (he was a Scot), insisted on a live tree decorated with an overabundance of lights and ornaments, redid the whole house, taking down pictures and decorative items to replace them with Santas and miniature villages replete with fake snow. Stockings were hung and filled even for absent children and stocking stuffers were measured by their creativity. He shopped like a demon and I felt the need to keep up. The presents under the tree were plentiful and the whole thing looked lovely, but by the time we finished cooking a huge Christmas dinner (for his son, my grown son, and various friends)—after having done a pretty major Christmas Eve feast—opening the packages and cleaning up, I was exhausted. All I could think of was the time it would take to un-Christmas the house and vacuum up the pine needles which seemed everywhere. He insisted on keeping everything up until the sixth of January, by which time I was very tired of the whole thing. He took great joy in the holiday but I always felt like I was the Scrooge.

Now that we are separated I am back to doing Christmas my way, which is to say, not at all.

This year, members of my temple are cooking and serving a massive Christmas Eve dinner for 85 homeless men, women and children at our local mission. We are planning on making this a yearly event. Most of us have spent this past week making dishes that will then be taken and reheated in the afternoon. After the dinner, there is the chance that some of us may well see a movie. And on Christmas Day we will sleep in, see if anywhere is open for lunch and most likely try and catch another movie. No flying, no spending, no forced jollity, no worries.

To those who really enjoy the holiday stress-free this may sound like sacrilege, but for those thousands and thousands who continue to figure out ways to de-stress Christmas, perhaps this is something to think about. The religious can do something good for the community and then go to Christmas mass, wake up the next morning, make pancakes with the kids and then play games. The non-practicing can do the same without church. You can make a few phone calls to family and make plans to go see them when the airports are not nightmarish and the weather isn’t so capricious.

And we would be happy to see you later at the movies.