In the Chinese restaurant, I feel American again

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Jolly good cheer. Everyone loves Christmas. Joy to the World.

Unless you don’t celebrate Christmas. At all. No not even Santa. No, not even a tree. No, not an ugly sweater. No, it isn’t a secular American holiday. Christmas is just a reminder that you’re different, that you are other, and inevitably that breeds feelings of loneliness and alienation.

It’s Christmas and my daughter has questions. She has had the same questions for months since Peppa Pig aired a Christmas episode in October. So did Mickey Mouse. So did Doc McStuffins. So did well… everyone. Why did her Mom get so upset when she asked if we could put a Christmas tree in the Sukkah this year? Could we put up sparkly lights? Who is Santa? How come some kids celebrate Christmas and Chanukah, but her mother said no? Why are we Jewish and her best friend is, as she describes it “Christmasy?” I tell her that everyone is different, and it’s great to have lots of friends with many traditions, but at our house, we do Shabbat, not Christmas.

It’s Christmas and my husband is relieved. No standing on an icy ladder putting up lights. No decorations to hang, no dragging a Christmas tree across the city and struggling to get it into the house. No tinsel, no shopping, no elf on the shelf or presents to wrap. Just a quiet day of basketball by the fire. Many converts struggle with the Christmas season, but for my quiet introverted husband, trading the weeks of Christmas stress for a relaxing day at home feels like contentment, like this is where he was always meant to be. I tell him to enjoy it why he can, he is still on the hook for Passover.

It’s Christmas and I am lonely and cranky. Every Christmas I struggle with the same feelings and the same questions. Most of the time I feel very American, but when the Christmas season starts I begin to feel different, other, outside looking in. Christmas feels like the biggest party of the year that I am not invited to like the whole world is celebrating and my nose is pressed up against the window watching.

Except I am invited. I could join in anytime. That is a part of the problem, Christmas is a constant invitation to assimilate. Wouldn’t it be easier to join in the fun? Wouldn’t it be cozy to wear an ugly sweater with a light-up reindeer? The lights are so beautiful and bright. Gingerbread and delicious peppermint bark are delicious. Let’s just slip into it, bit by bit, and allow it to wash over us, change us, maybe even erase us. So Christmas becomes a battleground, a line in the sand, a constant freak out for Jewish moms. Like if we slip up and enjoy a delicious peppermint mocha suddenly our entire selves will be gone. I am a fiddler on the roof, and I might fall off!

Let’s just stop the Christmas panic. Our traditions and our history and our love of Judaism does not break so easily. No matter how you handle Christmas, including if you celebrate it as part of an interfaith family, that doesn’t determine what Judaism means to you or how you observe Judaism or how connected you are to your Jewish roots the other 364 days a year.

I’ve stopped shushing my daughter when she points out Christmas lights in the car, she’s right— they are beautiful. I focus on passing on how beautiful our traditions are, and it is okay to notice that something else is beautiful too. It’s okay to feel a little sad that we don’t do Christmas, it does look like fun. I am done fighting it Christmas, this is a battle that simply can’t be won, because it’s a battle with ourselves and our own insecurity as a religious minority.

We can’t win if we fight assimilation on terms set by others. We fight it by loving who we are, devoting ourselves to our own beautiful traditions, and celebrating our holidays in big beautiful proud ways.

This brings us to the most sacred of American Jewish traditions — Chinese food on Christmas.

My family may have different feelings about Christmas, but on this, we are in total agreement. Christmas is a day to take a drive to our favorite Szechuan place, order way too much, and sit around laughing and enjoying lo mein, fried rice, and egg rolls. I like to do the feast for lunch on Christmas day when boredom has set in and I start wondering what I would be doing right now if I were Christian.

Particularly in the freezing cold, an outing that ends in hot tea and spicy food is welcomed to fight cabin fever. Sitting in the Chinese food restaurant is also a welcome reminder that many people feel loneliness and alienation on Christmas, not just Jews. That America is a big multicultural melting pot, with rugelach and brisket and moo shu and dumplings, and that is what has made it such a wonderful home for us. It reminds me that different people with different holidays, cultures, and foods is what makes America. In the Chinese food restaurant, I feel American again, accepted again, and the pressure to conform melts away. I am just as American as anyone else, I belong today on Christmas just as much as I do any other day.

This year, we can’t enjoy our normal tradition of sitting together in the restaurant safely, but we can order take out and watch the Celtics take on the Nets. We can order extra and tip more because we know times are hard. We can donate to funds to support the local restaurants and their employees, places that make us feel at home on days we often feel alone. We can celebrate by cooking Chinese American style food for Shabbat as well because really, there is no such thing as too much Chinese food, especially on Christmas.

Merry Christmas and a Happy Chinese food day to all!

How was your week? How are you spending Shabbat? Let us know at #tweetyourshabbat! Everyone is welcome at this table! Come hungry.

In the Chinese food restaurant, I feel American again

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