Writing from the Heart: Christmas envy

Learning to let go of the ‘poor me’ story.


This is the first year in my entire life I don’t have Christmas envy. Over the years, my kids have known about my vivid memory of walking into my friend Arlene Keefe’s house during Christmas vacation and seeing a floor-to-ceiling 14-foot Christmas tree with lights glowing, fire roaring, gifts placed artfully under the tree. I had such a yearning, I thought my 13-year-old heart would break. I knew I wanted this. I wanted the whole scene; the warmth, the colors, the presents, the smell of pine, the majesty. How did this happen that I didn’t have this? 

I had told them about how on Christmas mornings, going outside being the one Jewish kid, hearing everyone’s, “Whadja get, whadja get?” and having to say, “I got nothing,” feeling their disdain and weirdly my own shame. 

So what happened this year? Where once I was thrilled with the story of my friend Kate’s grandmother’s ornaments, and watched with awe Becky’s box of decades-old silver and gold decorations were packed in their original containers with the hooks still on them, suddenly I am facing a larger truth. This is not my ritual. Try as I have been trying, it’s just not mine. That box did not dwell in my parents’ basement or attic, and those beautiful, colorful decorations did not grow up with me. 

All these years I thought I could create a Christmas by shopping (which I admit I loved) and gift wrapping (which I loved even more), and putting the stuff under my gentile friends’ trees (which I also loved). But this year somehow it’s different.

As for Chanukah, the rabbis always said Chanukah was a minor holiday, but somehow in my young life, it started trying to compete with Christmas, and it was a poor second. My parents were trying so hard to assimilate into Christian society that the message I got was keep a low profile, and don’t call attention to your Jewish self. The result was we got neither Christmas nor Chanukah. 

When my kids were little, I always lit the menorah, but I think they had a similar experience to mine. I’m pretty sure they didn’t have envy, but I don’t think Chanukah took the place of anything. And since I wasn’t honoring it or conveying a message of anything close to spiritual, of course, it didn’t mean much to them either.

A few years ago I took a workshop with Jack Kornfield, a wise and beautiful meditation teacher. He talked about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves that no longer serve us. After the talk I took a walk in the snow, thinking about which stories of mine might apply. And I slipped and I fell. I took off my boot and put snow on my swelling ankle, and as I was hobbling back to the main building, I thought, Well, of course I slipped, I have weak ankles. Then like a bolt of cartoon lightning, I realized, Wait a minute, I didn’t have weak ankles! My sister had weak ankles. I loved her so much I emulated everything about her, including her weaknesses! I never ice-skated because my sister had weak ankles! Well, there was one story that no longer served. 

So maybe that’s why this year I asked my young self if I needed Arlene Keefe’s Christmas anymore. And my adult self said, No, not really. My grown-up self said, It is too late to start a new ritual. That train left the station long ago, and that wound doesn’t serve you anymore. Adopting an old childhood fantasy when you’re way past childhood isn’t working.

So now that I let go of that yearning, that story of poor me, I’m the only one without a Christmas tree and glitter and tinsel and a cozy fire, I feel I can fully embrace Chanukah in a whole different way. 

So if you see me in Cronig’s this week, I won’t be eyeing the candy canes and the eggnog with longing. You’ll see me buying applesauce and sour cream and potatoes for latkes. And finally, instead of a concession, instead of a poor second, Chanukah with its miracle (I do love miracles) of the oil lasting eight days instead of one drop that should have run out, will be a first: its own meaningful, joyous celebration.