For most of my life, Christmas has been a strange, sad and lonely day. I’ve raised my children the way I was raised: to respect Christmas as a religious holiday, which is to say not our holiday.
When I was a kid, that meant we sat around the house and did pretty much nothing, waiting to hear (with undisguised jealousy) the reports from non-Jewish friends about presents and feasts and even moving midnight Masses. We didn’t go on vacation (we never went on vacations when I was a kid). We didn’t get invited to people’s houses. All the restaurants were closed or serving Christmas dinner, which meant the same thing.
It was a day to feel “left out.” I remember driving home from downtown Lynn, Mass., one night with my mother, with the weather on the radio charting Santa’s course and the Christmas lights beginning to twinkle on Union Street, and feeling so terribly alone in the back seat that I had to hold back tears.
Once I was on my own, it became a “catch as catch can” sort of day. Sometimes friends would have me — and later us — over for dinner. Sometimes not. One year, I had a Christian roommate, and we put a wreath on the door. I couldn’t get over how pretty it was, but I never would have done it on my own.
What I discovered, when I was old enough to talk to my own friends about it, was that feeling left out because it wasn’t my holiday was in many ways easier than what many of my Christian friends faced: families torn apart, empty chairs at the table, the constant nag of disappointment and depression that what should have been a joyous season, what we imagine is so joyous for everyone else, isn’t for you.
As all the psychologists will be saying on television this week, Christmas is a period of serious depression for many, a season to keep an eye on those who suffer from depression and on those who have suffered losses during the year, a season to be sensitive to parents who can’t afford to buy all the latest “it” gifts for kids, to those who don’t have children or family, near or far, or can’t afford to go see them.
There are a lot of people in that boat this year. One of my favorite things that I’ve done over the years is to adopt a family: buy gifts for children I know only by age and sex, keep myself from going too far overboard, chat with other folks in the aisles of Toys"R"Us about what is just right for a 7-year-old boy.
I didn’t come from a cookie-cutter perfect family. If you’ve read my columns, you know that. Most of us don’t. My mother was difficult. My relationship with her was rocky and often painful. She suffered from serious depression. I fought it, which probably made me even less sympathetic to her suffering.
But there was a time, when I was a young adult living on my own in Boston and she was living on her own not far away, when we developed our own Christmas ritual. Every year, we picked out a movie at one of the local theaters. I’d pick her up for the show, and then afterward we’d go to Dave Wong’s China Sails in Salem and eat fried shrimp and sometimes even pork strips. In many ways, silly, preposterous. Jews aren’t supposed to eat shellfish and pork strips. But there we were, proudly confirming our identity by not celebrating Christmas and then ordering those forbidden foods.
Orthodox Jews will think of us as hypocrites, and maybe we were. But we did it together, mother and daughter, feeling loved and not lonely. When I think back on my relationship with my mother, all those rocky years, all that pain and misunderstanding, my happiest memories are of the five years or so when we spent Christmas going to a movie in Peabody and then to Dave Wong’s.
A friend who is not going home for the holidays said she didn’t know what to do on Christmas. Easy, I said. A movie and Chinese food. With someone you love.
Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays.
— Bestselling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.