Mo recently brought up that I am often filled with melancholy during the Christmas season. At first I denied it, but then I tried to gain some perspective. I could see what he meant and resolved to give it more thought. Which I then avoided, along with all stores and radio stations playing Christmas music (although I’m really soaking up the Christmas tree shots on Instagram). Mo thought that maybe my sadness around Christmas time has to do with nostalgia for family memories and a happier time that he suggested maybe never was. I disagreed, because I think it isn’t about remembering a happier time with family I miss, but about individual moments frozen in my memory from childhood. Nostalgia is a complicated mix, evoked by triggers like the scent of pine, the sight of the kind of little white Christmas lights we had on my childhood tree, or the big gaudy colorful ones my Grandpa used to put on the tree he left out on his snowy porch in Vermont, usually through the spring thaw, which meant I could still see it if I returned for a visit in April.
I remember being in the Christmas pageant as a little girl, wearing choir robes with ribbons in my hair. I remember going to midnight mass and loving the candles and sweet yet solemn songs, the cold air, the excitement of being up late, thinking maybe Santa would be arriving when I got home. I remember the year my mom surprised me on Christmas Eve with the shiny pink dress she had originally said no to because it was too short, but it was the only size they had left and I felt so beautiful and happy. I remember rearranging the characters of our simple wooden nativity scene over and over. I remember listening to Christmas music and sitting in the glow of the tree every evening for weeks before and after Christmas.
When I was a teenager and my parents were divorced and I felt a bit adrift in my own family, I remember driving seven hours in the snow to spend Christmas with my Grandpa and his girlfriend. We had dinner with a motley crew of single and distant-from-family neighbors, everyone was over seventy and I felt that my awkward self fit right in somehow. Even though I didn’t think I was a kid anymore, Grandpa still filled a stocking with my name written on it in silver glitter with small silly gifts from the dollar store, every single one individually wrapped.
The truth is, by the time I met Mo when I was twenty, I was disenchanted with the holidays and I had spent the previous two Christmases waiting tables. I didn’t really have a family place that I wanted to be, and I didn’t want to go with friends, so work was a better alternative. The first year Mo and I were dating we threw a joint holiday party that we called both “Martlin’s Marvelous Holiday Extravaganza” and “Caitmo’s Chrismukah” because who could decide between two awesome names like that? I made baked ziti and my mom brought her mini fake tree and Christmas candles over to my apartment. Mo lit Chanukah candles and my friend Julie sang the blessings with him. That was the only time I’ve ever felt truly jealous, that this random friend of mine had access to a part of Mo’s life I felt drawn to and had been longing to be part of. That was my last Christmas.
By the following year Mo and I were living together in Israel, I had begun studying for conversion, and I was swept away in the enchantment of everything new around me. I was drawn into the deep, rich holidays I was soaking up one by one. I didn’t even have a chance to miss my old holidays, especially since I’d grown so distant from the celebrations that had created my happy memories. I remember that first winter in Israel thinking about walking down to the Christian quarter of the Old City, to see what went on at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Christmas Eve. I’m not sure if I felt like it would be a betrayal of my newfound commitment to Judaism, or if I just didn’t want to walk forty five minutes in the cold, but I decided not to. I considered going there the other two winters we spent in Israel, but something held me back and I never went.
I think that same feeling of holding back is what leads to my holiday melancholy now. I am satisfied and happy in my Jewish life, as it is, and as the years pass I grow more and more nostalgic in my memories of each of the beautiful holidays. I have sweet associations with smells and tastes and experiences of the Jewish holidays that in a certain way take the place of my old experiences with Christian holidays. However, the old memories are still there and it can be a strange feeling to have them come up without enacting them.
As the Christmas season bustles around me, I find I have that sensation in the back of my mind like I’ve forgotten something. I’m trying to be aware of the feelings that come up for me, thankful for the happy memories, and sometimes sad that I don’t get to participate in them anymore. I have spent the past eight years pushing away those feelings without realizing it, in an attempt to be faithful to my chosen life. Now, I realize that I don’t need to be afraid of my own feelings, I can experience them, acknowledge their source, and let them pass.
Here are some photos from Chanukah our second year in Jerusalem, winter 2007
Wishing everyone a happy and healthy holiday season, and blessings for the new year ahead.