Sometime around mid-November, without any provocation on our part, our kids start a campaign to become like the Joneses. Not the Rosenswags, the Joneses. There’s no “Happy Holidays,” no “Festival of Lights,” no “Kwanzmaskah” for them; it’s all Christmas, all the time. They long to adorn our front yard in mad energy-gobbling holiday lights, to get a 7-foot-tall Christmas tree you can see from the window, and to craft elaborate Christmas decorations out of recycled tin. They get up early each morning to make cards with pictures of trees and Santa. They squirrel away pieces of chalk and write “MERRY CHRISTMAS” in all caps on the sidewalk. Luna changes her braces’ elastics to red and green and is only wearing red and green hair ties. Plum, who was happy to inform the other kids in Bridge-Kindergarten that Santa isn’t real, has this elaborate rationalization:
“Even though Santa isn’t real and is just a person dressed up, the guy who dresses up and rides the sleigh and has reindeer is STILL going to come down my chimney and give me presents.”
I’m not opposed to Christmas. In fact, I like it better than some other grown-ups I know and I can belt “Jingle Bells” with the best of them. But it’s not me. Growing up on a hippie anarchist commune and then moving to what seemed to me to be stiflingly normal Berkeley, CA, it would never have occurred to me to want, much less ask for, a tree. Or holiday lights. Or even, really, presents. We spent Christmas with close family friends, who had the whole nine yards—grandparents and presents and a big tree, eggnog and bacon and stockings. I loved it and I loved that I got to be part of it without having to pose that it was my tradition. For Hanukkah, we visited the downstairs neighbors who had latkes and could pronounce the Hebrew words correctly.
I’ve tried to break this gently to my children, but their steadfastness in owning Christmas is startling; it may not be me, but it’s them and it’s their father, who grew up with Lutheran and Catholic relatives and the whole shebang. We have tried a comprised version, with a potted blue spruce that lives in the yard most of the year and comes in from the cold mid-December. We put their hard-worked decorations on it, a few ornaments passed down from their father’s grandparents, some white lights, and a tinfoil star on top. This year, the kids stopped stumbling over calling it a “solstice tree” and call it what it is. Thanks to their fathers’ relatives, there will be a reasonable but not horrifying amount of presents.
We will spend Christmas morning with the same family friends I have for the last forty years, drinking eggnog and rummaging through stockings. We will negotiate, we will sing, but for me, it will always be as if I’m looking in on someone else’s strange and lovely ritual. It’s not that I want them to exchange all their Christmas fanaticism for Hannukah fanaticism or any other holiday extravaganza. It’s not that I want to “own” Christmas or create my own hippie version of the ritual, for the ritual seems to work just fine. It’s more that I am bewildered by my children’s sense of belonging; that they think of all the holiday wrappings and lights as their thing.
My first identity, once I got one, around 6 or 7 when we moved from the commune to the city, was as an outsider. More than being a girl, a kid, a Jew, a European-American, a sister, or a daughter, I was an outsider and that was a good, if not always pleasurable, place to be. Even in hippie Berkeley, I never felt among my people. I wore pillowcases to school. I’d seen more naked bodies before I was five than most people see in a lifetime. Enough said.
My parents talked, argued, and discussed everything. Nothing, as far as I could tell from listening in, was simple or static. Everything contained its critique. Some of the commune kids I grew up with went far the other way, becoming cheerleaders and joining sororities to prove that they could belong as well as anybody. I understood their motivation but also understood that the advantages of outsider identity outweighed the disadvantages. We had a sense of curiosity, of awareness, and, at the base, a sense of empathy and compassion for the minority, the dissenter, the others that were outsiders in one way or another. There were disadvantages, including loneliness and a lack of good presents in December, but that made sense. Nothing without sacrifice. As Frederick Douglass taught us, “No struggle, no progress.”
Last night I came home late and saw our blue spruce sparkling with white lights through the window. It disoriented me. Could that home be mine, with that tree that could be seen from the window? Was it advertising our allegiance to the majority over the minority, to the insider over the outsider, to the many over the few? Would my children really learn compassion, empathy, and critical discourse if they grew up with that tree? Then I thought of my partner, Jason, one of the most hands-down compassionate people I know. Growing up working-class in rural Washington State, an artist among football players, he says he too always identified with the underdog, the weirdo, and the person alone in the corner. Of course he did. Don’t most of us? My children will struggle, because we all do. They will feel other and excluded, as we all do sometimes. And they will feel included and connected in a way that is different than I do. But the question is not what they will feel but what they will make of that feeling and what they will do with it.
I realized that is one of the wonderful outcomes of spending time in the Occupy movement, and seeing so many others there as well. It reminded me that most of us, at least 99 percent of us, are on the side of the little one, on the side of fairness, and the rights of each of us to feel included. Our sense of compassion and empathy can come as much from our sense of belonging to a larger humanity as it can from our sense of otherness. For the sake of my Christmas-loving children, for the sake of all of us, it has to.