Monday, December 21, 2009

Wrapping My Brain around Christmas

A few days ago, I took a quiz on Twenty multiple-choice questions to answer, and the site tells you what religion aligns most closely with your beliefs. My result: 100% Reform Judaism, which is exactly what I am.

So why do I have a nine-foot Christmas tree in my living room? Why have I spent the last few days looking for non-existent parking spaces in shopping malls? Why is Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” blasting away on the CD player?

Partly because my father, a self-identified “cultural Jew,” didn’t believe in organized religion for himself or his children. No Hebrew lessons or religious education for me.

Partly because twenty-nine years ago I married a Presbyterian-born atheist, with whom I cobbled together a unique holiday experience for our two children: a Christmas tree and a menorah, a reading of the Chanukah story on the first night, no outside lights, no Santa. (The proscription of Santa was particularly effective, causing my then-six-year-old daughter to ask me tearfully one March, “Am I allowed to believe in leprechauns?”)

The atheist and I are no longer married, and our children are adults. Sometimes I feel bad that I didn’t insist on educating them in some sort of religious tradition. My son is glad I didn’t; my daughter, who is still pissed off about the leprechauns, is fashioning her own system of beliefs.

Sometimes I feel very conflicted about the way in which I have made room in my life for Christmas. I love the tree and the presents, the shopping and baking, and especially the music. But inside, I always feel a little like an outsider, a pretender. (And I always feel guilty in temples because I don’t understand the language or know the rituals. There’s this gnawing sense of anxiety and shame. It’s like those dreams where you’re in high school and you realize you haven’t studied for finals.  You keep thinking, Why don't I KNOW this?)

Several years ago, Robert and I went to a Christmas Eve service at the Berkeley Unitarian Church. The minister gave a sermon about the birth of Jesus: how it was really a story about being frightened and alone, and how miracles can happen when everything seems hopeless. It was a wonderful, inclusive take on Christmas. It spoke to something deep inside me: the need to believe that we are not alone in our suffering.

The menorah still sits on my mantel, surrounded by garlands and stars. I rarely light it anymore, but it is my way of reminding myself of who I am.

1 comment:

  1. So, next year you'll come for latkes. Once you taste them, you'll remember who you are. It's genetic. Josh