Why the Christmas Season Feels Like Trauma to Me
I never talk about this, but when I was a kid growing up in New Orleans, I was afraid of the colors red and green. It didn’t matter the season; if I saw the two together, I rushed to avert my gaze. Returning Magic Markers to their box, I took care not to let the two sit side by side. Given a bag of M&M’s, I made sure not to isolate reds and greens from the rest. And if, in a game of Clue, Mr. Green ended up alone in a room with Miss Scarlet, I’d feel a pinch of dismay. Couldn’t the world give me a break?
Come December, of course, the pair was impossible to avoid. I might try not to look out the car window, but the colors were together everywhere, the same way that Christmas music was everywhere — on the stations my mother skipped over while surfing the radio, in the commercials that punctuated the nightly news, during recess and in chorus class at school. My eyes felt blistered by the onslaught of red-and-green cheer; it seemed the coupling would take forever to un-see. The season was the reason for a whole year of vigilance.
I refused candy canes and chocolate Santas, too, claiming to be allergic, or excusing myself with an “I can’t eat that, I’m Jewish.” My family didn’t keep kosher, but anything touched by Christmas carried the unbearable stink of treyf. If gummy-dotted gingerbread houses looked alluring, I was certain that their allure and that of the witch’s house in “Hansel and Gretel” were one and the same. Even the candy cane on the Candy Land game board circumscribed a territory off-limits to me. Like a crucifix, it marked the game as one I could never wholly embrace.
Ingesting a candy cane would mean ingesting the ethos of Christmas, the same way that gazing at red and green meant permitting the aesthetic of Christmas to imprint itself in my brain. Once I ate a candy cane, I figured, I’d be changed — and so, the first time I gave in to the curiosity, I ate slowly, rewrapping it between licks and storing it inside a desk drawer for days. I had the sense it might poison me. To a certain extent, I think I was right.
My mother likes to tell a story about the first time she saw a Christmas tree. She was 7 years old — it was the early 1960s — and an employee at her parents’ Brooklyn store had invited the family over for some holiday cheer. “There it was,” she says, “this big tree, inside an apartment, with popcorn and all sorts of weird things hanging from it. It was just so strange! I was terrified!”
That’s the punchline, and we’re meant to laugh, but the story rattles underneath every encounter I have with Christmas. It doesn’t matter that I’ve now weathered more than 30 Christmas seasons, doesn’t matter that I’ve gone to scores of Christmas parties, heard copious hours of Christmas music, even have (reluctantly) given and received a few Christmas gifts. Unlike red and green, which I’ve long since reclaimed, Christmas trees can’t be separated from what they represent. Every time I see a Christmas tree I flinch.
My mother’s terror wasn’t actually about the tree, of course. What terrified her was the sight of her parents — Holocaust survivors who spoke Yiddish in their immigrant community and at home — sipping strange drinks, exchanging strange gifts, as guests in a strange, American place. Every Christmas tree is a reminder that we’re not at home. So, each December the center of the college campus where I teach announces, “This is not your home.” The main street of the Midwestern town where I live proclaims, “I’m not your home.” The living rooms of my dear friends sing, “Fa-la-la-la-la, you’re not at home.”
I’ve come to think of the visual, aural and olfactory onslaught of Christmas as a kind of trauma. How else to describe the ongoing recoil, the way I shrink from the carols piping into my apartment from downstairs? December is the time when my home becomes strange, or when I become a stranger walking unfamiliar streets in my grandparents’ shoes. Every Christmas tree reminds me of them, and of my mother, and of my father, who immigrated to America from the USSR. Every Christmas tree is a reminder of the persecution and genocide that drove us here.
To speak of this grief and dread feels taboo, haunted by Scrooge and the Grinch and the ghosts of Christmases past. Little could be less American, or more publicly reviled, than the hater of Christmas. But I’m old enough now to recognize that this silencing is another form of trauma, evidence of a mythology so widely accepted that its boundaries are invisible, so difficult to see around that it’s internalized.
I think of it as the silent season. Silent for how I feel on “Magical Night” downtown, when I slink darkly past families bearing snowflake cutouts and Santa hats, past shop windows noisy with mechanical figurines and canned music. Silent driving through a carnival of Christmas decor before pulling into the driveway of the one house that is shadowed and cool. Silent in the pause after the cashier says “Merry Christmas” and before I give in to the lie of “You, too.” And silent the winter my family rents a vacation house from a woman who trills, “I left the Christmas decorations up for you!” Silent as we sip from Santa-faced mugs, sleep under red-and-green sheets, breathe the Glade air-freshened scent of pine needles and spice, and tiptoe round the monster of a strange, decked-out tree.
One winter, the first winter that I ever dated a Christmas-celebrating man, I allowed myself to peek at the holiday through my boyfriend’s eyes. Suddenly the lights were pretty, the carols unthreatening: It was as though I’d glimpsed through a pinhole in a parallel land where Christmas might actually be relaxing, and I would no longer be burdened with the hard work of looking away. I could feel the pull. “Uncle, uncle,” I might say, and everything would become easy. I could let go, forget. It’d be okay.
But I don’t want to forget, even if the world asks me to. And this must be part of it, too: I avert my eyes from Christmas because I need to, because there is some use in this act of remembrance. Because for this secular Jew, Christmas is a deeply Jewish-feeling time of year. Or because there’s even pleasure in the recoil, the way there was pleasure, once upon a time, in knowing that the Santa Claus story your friends all believed was a lie. You walked around, cradling your secret, careful not to reveal it to the dupes, but glowing with the private pride of a grown-up truth.
Sometimes the act of remembrance is also an act of resistance. After all, America is my home, the same way it is home to the millions of immigrants who’ve claimed it over the years. And this year, when the president-elect mixes his thank-yous with forceful “Merry Christmases” launched before a fortress of Christmas trees, I am reminded of the student who, in the wake of post-election hate crimes, said that he never again wanted to live in a small town, “because when I leave campus I see nobody who looks like me.” I’m reminded of the student who pointed out that, though white Americans are encouraged to recognize black Americans each February, for her “it’s Black History Month all year.” Christmas trees remind me that the sense of alienation that dogs me through December persists, for too many Americans, each and every day.
You want to see your face reflected in the faces around you, the same way you want to see your story reflected in the stories around you. You want acknowledgment that you exist. I don’t want to be encouraged to forget how, or why, or who I am here. So every time I see a Christmas tree, I resist.
An acquaintance of mine throws elaborate Christmas and Easter parties each year, replete with caroling and gifts. I long to go, but, on principle, I never do. “You know,” I imagine saying to him, in deference to my childhood self. “I’m allergic to Christmas and Easter. But if you ever throw a secular party, I’ll totally be there.”
I suspect he’d be surprised at my assertion that Christmas might not be secular, that it might be an irritant against which no pill can neutralize the air. And perhaps, in my insistence, I align myself too closely with the “Keep Christ in Christmas” lawn signs that pepper my morning run. But “Christ” is in Christmas; it’s six of the nine letters there. And when our cultural narratives insist that we silence ourselves in the face of Christmas cheer, they insist, too, on a dangerous, practiced submission. “Just eat this candy cane,” the story goes — you can hear the witch’s cackle. “Go on. Swallow it. There.”
Helen Betya Rubinstein is the Dana Emerging Writer Fellow at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa