Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa are nearly here. Every mall has their Santa’s workshop primed and ready for tiny guests with their long lists, the go-ahead has been given to play non-stop holiday music, and loved ones are returning home so they can be with their families. All the major holidays except New Year’s Eve have become synonymous with family.
So, what do you do when your family doesn’t celebrate any holidays whatsoever?
For me, there are no relatives filling up their cars with presents and driving long-distances so they can be with me for Christmas, nor is there anyone subjecting themselves to an over-crowded flight just so that we can be together during this special time of year.
My holidays are the smallest of low-key celebrations — just me, my boyfriend, Andy, and our cats. This isn’t to say that my celebrations are depressing — they’re not. It’s just that they don’t match the image I have in my head of how the holidays should be: full of relatives partaking of family traditions.
You see, most of my family, except for one of my nephews, my mother, and I, are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and celebrating holidays is strictly forbidden for them.
If you’re not familiar with Jehovah’s Witnesses, they’re the folks who ring your doorbell holding copies of The Watch Tower and want to talk you at length about their faith. Some people hide from them, but I don’t. I open the door, listen to their spiel, and say, “Thank you, but I already know everything. My family are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and if they can’t convert me, you sure can’t.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Christmas has ties to paganism and that it ritualizes sinful behavior, so they decline to attend any celebrations. Birthdays also aren’t celebrated, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses part of my family do celebrate wedding anniversaries and baby showers. As an unmarried, childless woman, this makes me ineligible for any gift receiving or celebrating with them.
I know they love me, but I wonder how close we can actually be with a such a huge religious divide between us.
For Christmas, I’ll decorate a tree with soft ornaments so that when my bad cats knock them down (as they will undoubtedly do), nothing will get broken. I’ll buy presents, bake cookies, and make special meals, but there’s always one thing missing: people who are bonded to me by blood.
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My sister-in-law was the first one to become a Jehovah’s Witness shortly before my brother died, and she raised their children in that faith. My mother claims to be agnostic and says she doesn’t believe in family, so while my boyfriend and I travel up to see her once a month, we don’t schedule the trip to coincide with Christmas. The holidays aren’t a special time of year for her; if anything, she is annoyed by people trying to inflict their cheer upon her. If someone sends her a present, she’ll likely re-gift it or throw it away.
I’ve never had the Christmas movie kind of holiday, but I’ve been luckier than many. I received lots of presents when I was a child, and we had a Christmas tree, which my father had to make a real effort to get home. Overall, though, my childhood Christmases were pretty lonely. My brother, who is 8-years-older than I, was rarely there, and the silent tension between my parents was palpable. Later when I was away at school, and they divorced, I’d go to my Dad’s house for Christmas vacation. Since his birthday is December 28th and he passed away on Nov. 22, the holidays have since been tinged with grief for me. With my father's passing, the need for shared family experiences seems even more urgent.
I long for family traditions and will ask my friends, “What do you eat for Christmas dinner?” or “Who recites the Hanukkah blessings in your house?” and “What are the seven symbols of Kwanzaa?” I want to hear the stories about Aunt Sarah’s terrible fruitcake, how there’s always a fight over who gets to play with the dreidel, and how every day of Kwanzaa is better than the day before.
When my boyfriend's Grandmother was alive, we’d go to her house in San Diego for Christmas. She was a wonderfully sweet woman who would have Christmas carols on the stereo, a turkey in the oven, and pine-scented candles burning. It would be just the three of us, but it felt like the love you have surrounding you when you’re with a large, boisterous family.
I may never see my great-niece’s face light with glee while sitting on Santa’s knee or the look of pure joy on my nephew's face when he receives the perfect gift, but I’m okay with it.
After all, isn’t that what the holidays are all about — acceptance, love, and goodwill towards all humans even when they have a completely different belief system than you do?
It may be just a Christmas for two this year, but on the bright side, I don’t have to panic about forgetting to get a gift for Uncle Jim or pretend that I love deviled eggs. I can just relax and watch my feline-family tear up the wrapping paper, steal puzzle pieces, and destroy any decorations within reach of their claws.