That Chanukah I Celebrated My First Faux-Pas-Filled Christmas

This story is part of The Establishment’s Sadlarious Holiday Series. In lieu of sentimental platitudes and Hallmark-approved happy endings, these short essays focus on the messy, tragicomic spirit of the season.

Turn up your Pandora holiday playlist, spike some eggnog, and enjoy.

Last year I celebrated my first Christmas in Boston, at the age of 26. Growing up in an observant Jewish family, I had only witnessed Christmas from afar or through a screen — until I accompanied my partner Abe, the product of an interfaith marriage, home for the holidays. Despite my strict Jewish upbringing, I had spent a lifetime in our Christian-dominated society and therefore thought myself fluent enough in Christmas to participate. I pictured everyone decked out in festive sweaters and fake reindeer antlers, singing carols by the fire, sipping mugs of something steaming and spiced.

In reality, there were none of these caricatured traditions I’d envisioned. Well, they did serve a Christmas ham, which I politely declined to the relief of my Jewish mother’s voice in my head. But I had failed to plan for the two major events of the day.

To be fair, no one could’ve planned for the first one: Christmas morning, once we had all dug into the breakfast spread, Abe’s dad gathered our attention. “We’ve got some bad news,” he began, speaking steadily. “We got a call late last night . . . ”

While we were sleeping, Abe’s dad had slipped out of the house — quiet like Santa — and gone up the street to inspect a small, furry body with his phone number on its collar. It was Teeny, the family’s outdoor cat. Notorious for disappearing on multi-day adventures, Teeny liked to stroll around town at all hours and was well known among locals. Once he went missing for weeks, having been mistaken for a stray and adopted by new owners. Eventually, Teeny always came home. This time, though, he had been struck while crossing the street by a young driver home from college who couldn’t believe what she had done.

You might think the death of a longtime pet would put a damper on a holiday celebration. Maybe it was the fact that they’d said their internal goodbyes to Teeny once before, or maybe it was the sense of humor with which Abe’s family regularly conducted itself (in contrast to my own serious, no-nonsense family). But Teeny’s loss was taken in stride, his free spirit mirrored in everyone’s surprisingly good attitude.

The funeral was scheduled for “after presents.”

Now, I certainly knew presents were A Thing on Christmas, or at least I knew my manners, so I bought a box of assorted bonbons to present to Abe’s family.

And then conveniently forgot them at my apartment.

“It’ll be fine,” I kept telling myself, trying to hide my self-consciousness as we assembled around the tree. I was a newcomer, a visitor, not part of the family. Surely the debt I accrued during this gift exchange wouldn’t exceed the value of a box of chocolates by too much, right?

Wrong. With each package marked with my name that I unwrapped — alpaca socks, locally-made herbal skin cream, a ceramic teapot — I became more wrong, and more embarrassed.

As a child, non-Jewish peers had frequently remarked that Chanukah must be cooler than Christmas because you got presents for eight days instead of just one. Not in my family. My parents had resisted the Americanization and commercialization of Chanukah, urging us to focus on its historical significance and generations-old rituals. On a “good year,” I was lucky to receive even one gift. So I did not enter Christmas expecting much, or anything, really.

By the end, however, I had acquired the largest collection of gifts I had ever received in one sitting. My general discomfort with being given so much was amplified by my obvious lack of reciprocity.

“But it was your first Christmas!” Abe reminded me. “In terms of holiday experience, you were, like, a five year old!” And nobody expects a child to give as many presents as adults give them, he reasoned.

With my dignity slightly mended by Abe’s reassurance and my holiday spirit still on full blast, I came home and did the logical thing with my extra-large shopping bag full of goodies. I posted my first Christmas haul video on Facebook, 12 rambling minutes of show-and-tell culminating with, “Thanks Santa!” Fellow Jews, a word of advice: If your parents have a major fear of having Christian grandchildren, utilize those privacy settings! Don’t expose your mother to your Christmas haul video, because she will take it too seriously and it will break her heart. I learned the hard way.

As for Teeny, he was buried in the backyard on one of the warmest Christmas days on record in Massachusetts.

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