Ever since I married a Jewish man, I’ve been trying to figure out how to celebrate Christmas with my now-interfaith family. As a child, my family attended church on Christmas Eve; we set out cookies for Santa and waited to open presents. As the darkness of the night pressed close around, my family moved closer together, using love to beat back the darkness and send out new light.
I want to claim this sense of holiness for Christmas Eves with my young family, but I want to do so in a way that honors my husband’s experience as a Jewish person, who therefore didn’t celebrate Christmas as a child. He’s been part of my life for well over a decade, now, so he knows a few things about Christmas Eve: he knows about grasshopper pie, an unending plate of cookies, or sometimes going to a Unitarian Universalist church service, but we can’t seem to settle on a tradition, like we did when I was a child.
Christmas Eve in my memory had a rhythm all its own, one that began when the sun started setting in the dark winter sky. It started, as all good things should, with a nice meal, usually something simple and comforting like pasta and salad. Dessert, though, was its own moment of joy. Out came the grasshopper pie, chilled cold in the fridge, its green and brown colors intimating the taste of mint and chocolate that would soon fill my mouth.
Out came a large plate of colorful cookies that we’d spent the past few days baking: iced sugar cookies in the shapes of Santas and Christmas trees, thin sand tarts with delicate pecans, powdery white Russian tea cakes, meringues with chocolate chips, mini pecan pie cookies, and home-made chocolate peanut butter balls. Best of all, my mom looked the other way when we asked for another, and another, and another.
When my brother and I were young, we’d hasten off to a church service for families, a fun affair with candles and singing in the early evening. Afterwards, the Christmas magic continued at home. A fire crackled in the well-decorated fireplace, and Christmas music spilled from the CD player, sometimes choral and classical, and sometimes jazzy or jubilant. As bedtime neared, my brother and I opened our first gifts of Christmas — almost always a new pair of pajamas. I remember the year he received Superman pajamas, complete with a cape: sometimes I think he’d still wear them today, if he could get away with it. We posed in front of our wood-burning fireplace for photos of the new nighttime duds.
Once we were dressed for sleep, we settled down on our parents’ old hideous seventies couch, a monstrous affair covered in fabric that mixed pea-green, mottled brown, and mustard yellow in a pattern that seemed to be both plaid and floral at the same time. We snuggled close between our parents as they read us stories long past our bedtime. We read about the manger, and about “the night before Christmas, when all through the house.” We read about “The Elves and the Shoemaker” and “The Polar Express,” and when my mother’s mother visited, she cried every time she read “The Littlest Angel.”
All around was a feeling of comfort and love and closeness on a dark and special night. I know now how special this night was, how lucky I was to feel my family’s love so strongly. It’s left in me a powerful desire to recreate such a special time for my daughters and my family as well.
My brother and I always loved it when our dad read the final story of the night, Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” With a fake and overwrought pseudo-Welsh accent possibly inspired by his British step-father, he settled into the couch and begin to read the tale that kept my brother and I in stitches at the hilarious accent and the author’s strange word-play.
By the end of Dylan Thomas’s own remembered Christmas Day, the presents had been opened, the holiday feast consumed; the aunts were singing their tipsy songs by the fireside while the uncles loosened the belts on their overburdened waistbands. The young narrator grows sleepy from singing and excitement, and heads off to bed. Remembering those nights, Thomas wrote,
“Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”
“The close and holy darkness.” This simple phrase expresses what I hold most dear about this night: that while it’s the year’s time of deepest, blackest darkness, the longest nights of the year, it is also a time of brightness and light, of joyful celebration, closeness and love.
Now that I celebrate Hanukah as well, the darkened days of December become only a little bit more complicated. What I have learned over the years is that the flickering lights of the menorah keep bright company with the shimmering lights of the evergreen tree. Both lights can bring me back to those nights on a pea-green couch, when a miracle took place not in a faraway land, but right there, in our own home. Being together, lighting lights, telling stories, my interfaith family drives away the wintry darkness with with music and fire, light and love. The darkness – “the close and holy darkness” – is what makes the light so special.