When I was quite a small child and we had to sing Christmas songs in school, I changed every word regarding Santa Claus to some kind of juvenile slur. Later I made a habit of revealing to other children that Santa Claus was not real, was a contrivance of their parents’. Picture me, a curly-haired, pig-tailed revolutionary in blue-sweater rebellion amid holiday red-and-green: a mouthy little Jewish kid.
I swung wildly between deep disdain and gripping envy for children who had the privilege of the Santa myth. When I was probably four or five I asked my Mom — a woman who was good at brushing hair too hard and untangling knots from jewelry but less so at fussy baby stuff — why Santa wouldn’t come to our house, and if it were really impossible under any circumstances. She was quite firm about us being Jewish and no, Santa was most definitely not coming to our house.
When I was about four or five I had a picture of Santa in a children’s picture book. I stared at the foreign jolly figure’s sympathetic red nose and boundless smile. Santa, who loves all the little kids. I figured I’d show my mom. I got some socks out of my drawer upstairs and tied them to the fireplace and hung around waiting. I think it was probably daytime in the summer. Nothing happened, needless to say.
When I was 13 I had this Bat Mitzvah, right? In October, which is when my birthday is. I think that year was like, the only period of my life where I felt devoutly religious. My Grammy was dying in the summer before that. I remember the warm air, the sound of her wind chimes, the quietude of the little ranch home where I’d spent so much of my childhood. She was lying on her silver leather couch in a cloth turban, and I’d come in with my hair up how she liked and the prayer book that I got from Hebrew school and I’d read my Torah portion for her. She’d smile like no one ever would smile at me again.
My Mom said to her mother something like, “you know, we can have Leigh’s Bat Mitzvah earlier,” and my dying Grammy said something like, “nonsense, I’ll be there.”
I had my Bat Mitzvah in October. She wasn’t there. At the part where I had to carry the Torah between the aisles of the synagogue for everyone to touch all I remember is fixing my mind’s eye on her face. My gaze blurred with tears. She would have smiled so much.
After that I was troubled. Once I ran away from home, I guess — I mean, I think I must have just walked out without permission and stayed with a nearby friend for the night. I only know this because I later found a card in my little sister’s room that she had written: On the back it said “Dear Santa: Please bring my sister back.” I asked her about it later, and she conceded that she figured on trying everything, even the spirits that were not for us. She had placed her missive underneath her pillow.
I am a secular adult. I don’t really respond to ‘Merry Christmas,’ but I don’t especially care as regards ‘Happy Hanukkah’ either. When it comes to gift-giving I live in a certain limbo; I will buy gifts for favored acquaintances if I see something that makes me think of them, but freeze in ambivalence when it comes to those that are part of my daily life. I don’t really know how to receive holiday gifts. I know of families well into adulthood that still put cards on their under-tree gifts that read “From Santa,” and I understand it’s some kind of precious relic of their childhood, but I feel the distinct unease of a nostalgia I do not share.
I think about getting married in a church like a Disney movie, but I wouldn’t know what to do in a church. I’ve only ever been to one for funerals, maybe for other people’s weddings.
I like the Chinese food jokes. I make a lot of Chinese food jokes at Christmas, about how heartily I plan on eating Chinese takeaway during that one strange, post-apocalyptic week of New York City when all of my friends and neighbors and virtually everyone in sight vacates to the places they call home, leaving me alone in a neighborhood of corrugated shutters and chilly, empty sidewalks. People ask me what my plans are; I don’t say ‘oh, I’m Jewish,’ I say ‘my family’s Jewish.’ I mean, I don’t have any plans, really.
But I like the season, you know? I like Christmas trees. I even like the consumerism, because I like occasions where all of my nation’s society unites for some reason. I think I’d feel sad in a world where I didn’t have to listen to the tinny echo of a million pop versions of Christmas carols pumped through a crowded mall, underlaid gently with the artificial scent of baking cookies. Beautiful nausea, beautiful dysphoria.
I talked to my mother today about how I felt weird I hadn’t really bought any presents for anyone I know. “It’s because you’re a single adult,” she reasons. Hanukkah was a holiday for kids. We really had nice ones, when we were kids, a dining room table covered in presents for my sister and me where we used to open one every night. One year my mother gave me a lunch box and a hair dryer. We still laugh about that. Aw, man.
Already the air around me feels different. If you are a secular adult and you want to know limbo, stay in New York City for Christmas. There is nothing but silence. On the next block from me are a number of identical apartments. This time of year, they seem to strive to differentiate from one another through their displays of Christmas lights, blue and white and pink and rainbow, wound round the porch stair bannisters, hung lattice on the brickfronts. One of them plays music as it blinks on and off.
When I dress up to go out at night, for those last, urgent-feeling and winter-dark festivities before everyone vacates, I walk fast for the train. My heels ring out like gunshots on the pavement, echoing in the chilly desert silence that is already encroaching. My breath turns to smoke in my mouth.
Then I hear that music, you know? I notice myself haloed in the orange light of streetlamps and a certain innocence washes over me. I feel for a moment like one more stranger following a star. I usually hold still. I am aware of everyone.