On December 24 of this past year, I did something I never thought I’d do: I bought a Christmas-tree ornament. It was—as I imagine so many Christmas purchases are—an impulse buy. I’d gone for a walk and wandered into a home-decor store, and there at the cash register was a small display of stuffed cloth hearts to hang from tree branches, made by a fair-trade collective in South America. I chose a blue one.
It had been a rough few months. Two weeks earlier, on the first night of Hanukkah, in fact, my partner and I had decided to separate after two kids and nearly 20 years together. Since then, we’d been white-knuckling it to get through the holidays with the girls, in the same house. There’s probably never a great time to decide to separate, but there’s a particular kind of misery involved when you decide to separate nine days before Christmas, especially when your mother-in-law is scheduled to arrive in a week and you’ve decided not to tell the kids—and, by extension, not to tell anyone—until you have a plan. But who has time to plan between Hanukkah and Christmas, with two kids to occupy during their winter school break? We didn’t.
And then there was Christmas itself to get through. The holiday had become more fraught for us in recent years. When my soon-to-be ex and I first got together, Christmas hadn’t been a big deal. It was her holiday, her tradition, and I—the Jewish girlfriend—was happy enough to spend the day with her family, or quietly on my own. (Funny story: My very Jewish mother often hosted a Jewish Christmas dinner. She’d make a turkey and stuffing and a bunch of Jewish families would come over for dinner on the 25. She was miffed the year I told her I wouldn’t be able to make her event because I was going to have a genuine Christmas dinner with my partner’s genuinely Christmas-celebrating family.) When we married, in a celebration conducted by a Secular Humanist rabbi, we agreed to raise our children as Jewish, but with respect for both their parents’ cultural and religious heritages.
Over the years, we celebrated (or not) Christmas in a variety of ways. We’d had Christmas dinner at friends’ houses, and hosted dinners (complete with Christmas crackers and puddings and turkey and stuffing and trifle—all delicious, rivaling my mother’s) at our place. We had quiet mornings where we opened a few gifts, and then ate lunch and went tobogganing. Once, we scheduled flights on Christmas Day: I thought it was a great way to deal with the holiday, but it felt too dismal to Laura, and so we agreed never to do that again. One year, we spent the holiday in Florida with my dad and stepmother, in their gated and 90 percent Jewish retirement community. I loved how insulated from the holiday I felt that year; the normally stifling condo complex felt like a reprieve from the holiday and an entire season that I could never otherwise entirely escape, that seemed to take over a quarter of my year. Laura saw it differently: She missed the holiday trappings and the celebration, felt excluded and invisible—the way, I imagine, I felt as a Jew in the secular world at Christmas time.
And so it went, the push-me-pull-you of the holiday season, each of us increasingly dissatisfied with the other’s plans and preferences. She wanted more and more Christmas: lights (inside and out), decorations, carols on the playlist, bigger and better gifts and stockings, for us and the kids. She wanted to see It’s a Wonderful Life. And the more she wanted, the more the mantel was taken over with silver balls and poinsettias, with every purchase, with every repetition of “Little Drummer Boy” and card strung up, the more I felt as though my Jewish identity—and my kids’ Jewish identity—was disappearing. Christmas was turning into a season rather than a day, and it made me uncomfortable and anxious. The girls’ excitement over Christmas and its attendant booty made me equally uncomfortable, and I wasn’t interested in ramping up Hanukkah celebrations and gifts just to compete. I didn’t want our holidays to compete. I just wanted to feel comfortable in my own home, my own traditions, my own parenting.
Laura, I imagine, did too.
Like so many Jews in interfaith relationships, I drew the line at a tree. When we first met, my wife had declared that she wasn’t attached the idea of a Christmas tree, that we didn’t have to have one. But people change, and desires change, and now she wanted one. But I couldn’t. Rationally or not, I simply was not prepared to share my living room, my space, my identity, with one of the most potent symbols (beyond a crucifix) of Christianity, secular or otherwise. We argued about it: My fears about marginalization, she argued, marginalized her. I countered that I was fighting to maintain my own and my children’s Jewish identity in a place where it was all too easy to assimilate.
And so it went. And now, obviously, it didn’t really matter. After this, last, Christmas together, Laura would be free to celebrate the holiday in her new home with any and all trimmings she desired, just as I would be free to celebrate it—at least, in my own home—not at all.
Our different religious backgrounds weren’t what broke up Laura and me. I wouldn’t even suggest that they played a substantial role in our breakup. Frankly, we no longer saw eye to eye about a lot of stuff, religion included.
Instead, I think that our conflicts over the holidays were a symptom of the larger problems that plagued our relationship; maybe even a metaphor for it. In the beginning, the teamwork we put into merging our different backgrounds, learning about each other’s traditions and finding creative ways to accommodate our differences, was a sign of the initial strength of our union, one of its ongoing successes and one of the reasons we lasted as long as we did.
But as we broke down as a couple, so did our ability (and our willingness) to openly accommodate each other’s traditions. Increasingly, each of us chafed against the other’s preferences and choices—around not only religion and culture, but also parenting, finances, vacations, etc.—seeing them as obstacles instead of opportunities. Both of us wanted more control over our lives in all areas, had become progressively unwilling to make what felt more and more like compromises. Each of us, I suspect, felt increasingly invisible and powerless in the relationship, and so, in turn, we asserted our preferences and choices all the more. It was a vicious cycle that we had tried to defeat. In the end, though, it defeated us.
On the day before Christmas, I stood in front of a display of Christmas, and I picked out a blue cloth heart one for my soon-to-be ex-wife. This coming Christmas, I imagine she’ll have a tree in her new home. Maybe she’ll choose to hang this ornament on it, and maybe she won’t. The choice is hers now, just as I’ll get to make the choices about my own holiday celebrations. There’s a wild, almost visceral freedom in that knowledge, and also a deep sadness. The trick, I suppose, is learning how to merge the two.