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The Spouse Who Stole Christmas

It seemed like a fine idea. “Let’s not do Christmas this year,” my Protestant-born but non-practicing husband had suggested. “It’s just too commercial, too materialistic.” Easily, I said, “OK.” After all, I am Jewish. Who am I to say we have to celebrate Christmas?

So, unlike the previous eight years of our marriage, we did not buy a Christmas tree; we did not wind our way through the pines, spruces, and firs, touching and smelling and assessing heights and widths. We did not haul the boxes of glass fruit, vegetable, animal, and outdoor-themed ornaments from the basement and vie over who could hang each precious one; we did not buy more of them at craft stores and art galleries to add to our collection. Of course we did not put up our multicolored lights, the rainbow aura of which our cat loved to nestle into under the tree. We did not buy 60 feet of pine boughs to decorate our wrap-around porch. We did not bake cookies. We did not buy each other gifts: no CDs, no jewelry, no books. We did not even do Christmas stockings, usually full of unusual little finds and cheap necessities like deodorant and dental floss. We did not wake up early on Christmas morning.

I didn’t think any of this would matter when I agreed to abandon the holiday. After all, we had still planned to light the Hanukkah lights, and my husband had even purchased fancy tie-dye Hanukkah candles made by a local artist. Hanukkah is a minor holiday, after all, not really intended to beget so much fanfare. But I had forgotten how festive and warm the pagan rituals of Christmas had felt, how special that time of year had become, even though these traditions had never been part of my upbringing. When we walked the streets of Old Town after dinner at a nearby restaurant on Christmas Eve, beneath a halo of lights wound around tree branches and street lamps and amidst a neighborhood full of festivity, I felt left out.

I debated whether I felt left out because 96 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas in some way and I wasn’t part of it this year. Or because I am a minority in a mostly Christian nation who often feels underrepresented and misunderstood. Or because some Americans want to imbue even more of our secular institutions with Christianity, thereby impeding my religious freedom and negating the separation of church and state. Or maybe simply because my husband and I had developed a tradition, something we had created together out of love and unity and sharing, and we abandoned it this year, out of cold practicality, to save energy and paper and plastic and other natural resources (and money) by taking our own personal stand against the national affliction of materialism and consumerism.

I can’t say exactly why I felt I missed Christmas this year. I certainly don’t advocate the purchase of unnecessary “stuff.” I don’t want to have anything to do with the hysteria in malls and supermarkets. I think Christmas as it is practiced today in America strays far from its original roots. I don’t even think that Christmas should be a federal holiday in today’s day and age. I don’t subscribe to any of its religious tenets, and I don’t think they should be forced upon me.

But somehow, I did miss it. In some ways, for a Jew in an interfaith marriage, celebrating Christmas is like visiting a foreign country. You go, you partake of foods you wouldn’t normally eat, you see sights that you’ve never seen before, you immerse yourself in a new culture. You marvel, you take pictures, you write home. You forge bonds and understanding with the locals. But then you return and go about living your normal life, glad to be home, among the familiar.

And you talk about how you can’t wait to go back next year, because you had so much fun.

Sue Eisenfeld

Sue Eisenfeld’s essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Gettysburg Review, Potomac Review, The Washington Post, Washingtonian, Virginia Living, Blue Ridge Country, and other publications. Her essays have been listed among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays in 2009, 2010, 2013. She is a two-time Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the recipient of the 2010 Goldfarb Family Fellowship. She holds an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University, where she currently is on the teaching faculty. Her first book will be published by University of Nebraska Press in 2014.