Each December, we meet our friends Debbie and Tim for dinner at Rosti, followed by a trip to Tapia Brothers to get our Christmas trees. We’ve got 10 years of photos of our girls frolicking around the big prop tractor and real live farm animals. It is a holiday tradition for our mixed-religion nuclear family living in a city without anyone else to rely on.
I used to try to delay the Christmas decorations until Chanukah had come and gone, except during those years when the two December holidays overlap, in which case, it is impossible — or those years when we spend Christmas with my husband’s family in Wales, in which case I lobby not to put up decorations at all, because we’re not home to enjoy them. (I usually lose that fight, but I try.)
This year, when my husband announced he wanted to buy the tree earlier, I didn’t see any reason to delay — even though the only time our friends were available for this was last evening; the second night of Chanukah. So we met for dinner, were greeted warmly by the restaurant’s host, posed for family photos among the trees and fake Santas and chickens and sheep… and lit the menorah later that night in presence of the tree.
It has not always been this easy. And it may not always be.
I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with the December holidays. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a Fox News-style “War on Christmas,” although there have been years when my husband has accused me of that. It’s complicated, and I should have expected complications when I fell in love with someone of another faith. He has trouble understanding how it feels to be a member of a religious minority, and I have trouble understanding why he just doesn’t get it.
My husband grew up in a country with a state religion, and while we do not have one here (although some people are trying!), I grew up knowing I was different. In the early 1960’s, public school kids were still taught prayers. I was in my elementary school chorus and sang traditional Christmas carols in our Christmas program just before we broke for Christmas vacation. I loved those beautiful traditional religious songs, but I worried that G-d would be angry with me for singing the parts about Jesus. So I would lip sync those words and hope that was okay.
I don’t sing carols any longer (at least, not when anyone can hear me), but I will occasionally break out the sheet music and play them on the piano. I’ve got an iPod playlist of over 100 Christmas songs and enjoy listening to them once Thanksgiving is over and the holiday season has truly begun. I also own a small collection of Christmas movies which I insist on watching this time of year: the usual ones, like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” to modern ones like “Love, Actually.” My husband finds this odd, but there simply aren’t that many good movies about Chanukah.
I don’t mean to give you the impression that we are always alone. My sister’s family and my parents live 400 miles away, up in Sacramento. It’s not nearly as hard to get to as Great Britain, where my husband’s people reside. And she and her husband and kids drive down here every December to spend time with his family, who have always welcomed us to join them. And then most years we go up north to spend New Year’s Eve with them.
But my husband and I wanted traditions of our own. The annual trip to buy the tree is one of them. We also set aside one day to visit Santa Monica’s Kings Head Shoppe for Christmas goodies imported from the UK. We open our gifts on Christmas morning, locate a link to view the Queen’s Christmas message, and try to talk or videochat with the family in Wales. I roast a chicken and bangers purchased from the Kings Head, along with potatoes and other veg. And we tend to be too full to want dessert, so most years the purchased Christmas pudding ends up sitting in my pantry until it’s past its sell by date. (But we have it, just in case.)
Tonight we will decorate that tree after we light the Chanukah candles. And then, I just may watch my all-time favorite Christmas movie: The Bishop’s Wife, which I love because it’s whimsical and it’s got Cary Grant and David Niven, who as the bishop delivers a sermon that makes me feel a little teary.
Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking.
Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry, a blazing star hung over a stable, and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries. We celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, with the sound of bells, and with gifts.
But especially with gifts. You give me a book, I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer and Uncle Henry can do with a new pipe. For we forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. Its his birthday we’re celebrating. Don’t let us ever forget that.
Let us ask ourselves what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.
Peace on earth. Good will to all. This is something we can all aspire to: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, human.
Happy Chanukah. And Merry Christmas.