I’m not a religious person. If a propensity to enjoy religious ceremonies and traditions is genetic, I was born with secular genes. I suppose if my family had celebrated the Jewish holidays – or, as Jews tend to say, “observed them” – I might have felt more comfortable with them. But although my parents were both Jewish, neither had any interest in doing that. And because I was such a skinny and anemic kid, my mother would not allow me to fast on Yom Kippur, like my friends, so worried was she that I would not make it through the fast alive.
As I grew older, and observing Yom Kippur became my own decision (rather than that of my parents), I chose not to do so. But until quite recently I would worry that the God I didn’t believe in would smite me because I wasn’t fasting and I didn’t go to synagogue on Yom Kippur.
Perhaps the distinction between “observing high holy days” and “celebrating holidays” is key here. I actually love certain holidays – but they’re not holidays in the religion I was born into. And, while they are indeed religious holidays to those who regard them as such, over the years they’ve acquired pagan trappings. That’s the part I love. Perhaps there’s paganism somewhere in my genes.
All of the major holidays I like most are clustered in the months of October, November, and December – one in each month, starting with Halloween, on the last day of October.
Halloween is a good example of an originally religious holiday of which all that remains (at least in this country) are the pagan bits that accreted to the religious framework over time. “Halloween” is a contraction of “All Hallows’ Eve,” which, according to Wikipedia, “initiates the three-day religious observance of Allhallowtide, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers.”
I suspect that most trick-or-treaters don’t know anything about departed hallows. But they do know about Halloween costumes, jack-o’-lanterns, and candy. When I was a kid, for me it was all about the candy. (I was anemic because I didn’t do food, but I tried to make up for it by my intake of sweets.) I grew up in an apartment development, so there were many, many apartments to be visited. My sister and I would head out in our Halloween costumes that my mother made –I was a black cat; my sister was a devil; we wore the same costumes every year – our shopping bags in tow, ready to be filled with candy. It was a child’s heaven! When we got home, we would empty our loot on the living room floor and sort out the stuff my mother would let us eat (anything wrapped) from the stuff we had to toss (anything not wrapped).
Many years later, when I was the mom, our kids did the same thing when they’d return home in their costumes. I didn’t make their costumes, since I don’t sew – but Barry often did, since he’s the artistic parent in our family. I can still see Julia the unicorn and Jesse the black cat contemplating their piles of Halloween candy.
Now that our children are grown, Halloween is mostly about the fabulous pumpkins Barry carves (like intricate woodcuts, only on a pumpkin), and the way the neighborhood trick-or-treaters often gather around the pumpkin on our front porch to hear Barry tell the story carved on it. Some of our adult neighbors usually stop by too.
Years ago we instituted our own tradition; we invite people over for an open house to see the pumpkin Barry has carved and hear him tell the associated story – in an Irish brogue, if the story happens to be Irish. We always have a pot of apple cider kept warm on the stove, and two pumpkin pies and chocolate chip cookies and other assorted snacks and goodies. For me as an adult, Halloween is no longer about the candy. It’s about the artistry of Barry’s pumpkin and the friends and family who come to our open house to view it and hear the story and help us polish off those pumpkin pies I’ve baked, along with the rest of our pumpkin open house spread.
November’s holiday is Thanksgiving. We alternate Thanksgivings between my sister’s apartment in Brooklyn and our house, just outside of Washington, DC. In either location, we have a fabulous feast: butternut squash soup, roast chicken, chestnut stuffing, roasted vegetables of one kind or another, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.
If ever there was a holiday that’s about the food, it’s Thanksgiving. Which makes it a favorite of mine! What’s that you say? It’s about giving thanks for what we have? Well, yes, I suppose … if you put it that way …
When my mother was alive, she used to want us to take turns, as we sat around our Thanksgiving table, and say what we were thankful for. The rest of us would cringe – Ma! Please! She would say things like, “I’m thankful for my wonderful family!” How corny can you get? But if you asked me this Thanksgiving what I’m thankful for … well, I’m not sure what I’d say, but here’s what I’d think: “I’m thankful for my wonderful family!” Actually, there might be two or three exclamation marks in that thought instead of just one.
Yes, for me the best thing about Thanksgiving – even better than the food (and that’s saying something!) – is that it’s one of the two times during the year when I’m pretty much guaranteed to see both our kids (neither of whom lives close by any more) – and, if we’re lucky, their significant others as well.
In December, of course, it’s Christmas! Christmas may be my absolute favorite holiday. I love Christmas! But for me, it’s not about Jesus; it’s about Santa Claus. And the tree. And the presents. And the magical stories. And, now that I’m the mom rather than the child, it’s about my kids coming home to celebrate Christmas with us – the other time in the year I’m pretty much guaranteed to see both our kids, and, if we’re lucky, their significant others as well.
Even though we were Jewish, my family celebrated Christmas when I was a kid. My mother didn’t want my sister and me to feel left out at Christmas time, since, even though our neighborhood (in Queens in New York City) must have been about half Jewish, the holiday decorations in the stores at the time were mostly about Christmas.
I adored Christmas when I was a kid. We would buy a half-sized tree and set it up on top of the breakfront in our small dining room. Even though most Christmases were not white where I grew up, there was always a “winter wonderland” scene under our tree. We would put down cotton batting – that was the snow. Nestled into the cotton batting, we would put a mirror – that was the frozen lake. And around the mirror, we would put little miniature houses and fir trees – that was the little New England village.
We decorated our small tree with brightly colored ornaments and tinsel and candy canes. There were no electric lights, but the tree positively shimmered with gaiety. And in the morning, our stockings were full, and there was a pile of beautifully wrapped presents on the floor in front of the breakfront. (My mother went all out.)
Just by chance, I married another secular Jew whose family, like mine, celebrated Christmas as he was growing up, Christmas tree and all – except for one Christmas, when his religious relatives from Milwaukee were visiting. That year they didn’t have a Christmas tree. This was disconcerting; Barry worried that Santa wouldn’t leave any presents if there was no tree. But – lo! – there in the morning were the presents in front of the fireplace! That Santa! Somehow he knows!
Following in our tradition of a secular Christmas, Barry and I usually buy a (full-size) Christmas tree and decorate it with tiny electric lights and those tasteful old-timey little wooden rocking horses and nutcrackers (and assorted other stuff we’ve collected over the years). I’m the one who wraps the presents, fussing over the particular combination of wrapping papers (always making sure there is some shiny or glittery gold or silver paper in the mix) and the color-coordinated bows. And I’m the one who puts the wrapped presents under the tree – actually, I don’t just put them under the tree; I arrange them under the tree, so as to maximize the sense not only of beauty but of bounty. Perhaps I have some Norman Rockwell genes. Or maybe I’m just a little obsessive at Christmas time.
When our kids were little, we would leave homemade cookies out on a plate for Santa. After all, think about all that traveling in the sky all around the world in a sleigh pulled by reindeer! A magical being could get hungry! And all those elves back at Santa’s workshop! We made enough cookies for the elves too.
I think our kids loved Christmas as much as my sister and I had. I remember one Christmas – probably the last one for which Julia still believed in Santa Claus. I remember her tearing the wrapping paper off of one of her presents and, as she lifted out the lavender plastic “fashion filly” with the pink mane and tail, she exclaimed, “How does Santa know just what I wanted?” (How indeed?)
Not to brag, but I would note that we were a particularly thoughtful family, always tending to the possible needs and desires of the magical beings that visited us on holidays. Not only did we leave out a plate of cookies for Santa and his elves on Christmas Eve; we also left out a carrot for the Easter Bunny (who usually kindly brought our kids a chocolate bunny or candy eggs in exchange).
One year, when Julia was about three or four, we had told her that the Easter Bunny comes only when children are asleep in their beds at night. She was so excited about his visit and so much wanted him to come, that she got herself ready for bed by 6:00 pm. It was, of course, still light out. This puzzled her. As Barry tucked her into bed that “night,” Julia asked him, “Dad, how does Mom make it so dark when she tucks me in?” I miss those days when the kids attributed such powers to me.
About each of these holidays there are things I love, none of which really have to do with their original intended meanings. Halloween is just plain fun, but also a vehicle for Barry’s artistry, which, expressed on his pumpkins, evokes distant mythical times. (His pumpkin carvings have depicted the likes of the headless horseman, Gawaine and the Green Knight, and Charon and the River Styx.) So Halloween has become a kind of portal to those mythical eras shrouded in the mists of time (a feeling we traditionally enhance with the special music we tend to play at that time of year – Celtic harps and flutes and the like).
What I love most about Thanksgiving is just being with our whole family, cooking and eating and talking and laughing together. And while I don’t believe in a god to whom I would give thanks, I do feel incredibly fortunate that I have such a wonderful family, as sappy as it may sound. (Okay, Ma. I admit it! You were right!)
And as long as I’m being sappy, I will just note in passing that I feel that way at Christmas too. In fact, I think I reach peak sappiness at Christmastime, because not only is it about warm and wonderful family (all being home together!), but it’s also about the family of humankind – at least in my mind; at least as an aspiration. I obviously watched too many Hollywood movies when I was younger. Or perhaps just watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” too many times. I don’t really know how it happened, but whatever it is that generates those sappy, tear-jerky feelings in me goes into overdrive at Christmastime. And that feels good; after a whole year of fighting off the depression induced by the spectre of climate change and the other assorted disasters befalling us, it feels good to be awash in feelings of love – and hope – for humanity.
Perhaps Christmas is, for me, a metaphor. At the darkest time of the year we decorate an evergreen tree and give each other presents wrapped in glittery paper “to drive the dark away” – just as I banish the darkness of human reality for just this one time a year and replace it with the hope of what we could be.
So there they are – the holidays through my eyes and in my heart. They have nothing to do with religion – except perhaps for the humanist religion to which I belong; they have everything to do with what is most valuable in human beings – both real and aspirational.