A holiday family portrait

The wintertide holidays and the end of one year and beginning of the next are a time when family comes center stage. We try to reconcile, come together, and find joy or comfort in the presence of one another. Sometimes it’s beautiful, and sometimes it’s ugly, as we are only human after all, and sometimes instead of an embrace we find that we clash with those we love, even as we love them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what family means to me lately, and I still don’t know; the only thing that I’m certain of is that it is: beautiful, critical, and terribly difficult.

We are a family that has traditionally celebrated Christmas, and up until now we have done pretty much the same thing every year since my cousin and I were babies. It’s gotten harder since my grandma died. She really held us all together for our family traditions, especially Christmas; she loved to sing carols, she orchestrated the making of the sugar cookie family recipe, and she provided us with much of our good spirit. Since she passed away, I haven’t gone a Christmas Eve without waking up to my household having a cynical or despondent argument about how maybe we just shouldn’t have Christmas this year.

I don’t pretend to know what to think of that, or pass judgement in any way. I know it must be hard, and I miss her too. But I also know that if she saw the emotional turmoil left by her absence, she would tell us all to get it together and have a joyous holiday, even though she can’t be there.

There’s also the fact that, for quite a while now, I have been mulling over my connection to Judaism and what that means – for me and for my family, both the one that I have and the one that I’m making. I want to convert, though I haven’t had the chance yet. The process usually takes a year, and I haven’t stayed in the same place for much longer than that since I graduated college, which is when I knew that that was something I wanted to do. But despite the fact that I haven’t gone through the technicalities, and there are still lots of things I have yet to learn, I’ve been exposed to enough culture and taken part in enough of the services and holidays to consider myself Jewish more than anything else.

Because of this, it feels strange to celebrate Christmas, which is still a religious holiday for a faith that I am not a part of, even though it has been thoroughly filtered through capitalism and secular culture. To me, the holiday is one for celebrating family, for baking cookies, decorating the house with beautiful lights and baubles, for sharing meals together, singing together, and spending time together that we don’t normally get for the rest of the year. But I know that that’s not what it means to everyone, and despite my fondness based on experience, I’m frustrated by the assumption of Christmas as default as compared to other religions or cultures, and I’m frustrated by the aggressive commercialization.

At this point, I find myself at a standstill. This year, I didn’t have the means to celebrate Chanukah by myself. I think of my fiance, an amazing and beautiful human being who I’m so excited to share my life with, and how much I waned to join them for candle lighting, and make latkes together, and how I wasn’t able to join them and their friends for a lovely Chanukah party this year because we’re currently separated by distance.

I think of my family, who will be spending Christmas Day apart for the first time that I can remember, because some folks are going to spend it with my cousin’s fiance’s family. I think of how I put up a string of lights and ornaments in the veil of night one evening, “from Santa,” just to try and get my grandpa to have even one genuinely happy Christmas moment.

And, looking into the crystal ball of the future, I run over and over in my head thinking about when my fiance and I make a family, will we be a Chanukah-only house, or do I want my kid/s(?) to be able to spend Christmas time with my family too? Will I celebrate the holiday with my blood family, if I can? I can’t make the decision on my own, of course, as it touches so many other lives and not just mine. But of course I’m thinking about it constantly, during this time of year where everything is so close and raw.

I don’t have answers for any of this. This year’s holiday season is definitely a waystation on a journey. I am transitioning from one life into another, and yet, they are still one and the same.

But I want to keep love in my heart for both my old family and my new one, and I hope that I can find peace this year – and be excited for what the next will bring.