I saw my first lit-up house on Wednesday, rather lovely with swathes and swags of white light draped like crystals on a chandelier and the shape of a sleigh picked out in white and red on the front lawn. I saw my first lit-up house and my heart sank as I thought, “Oh, no, it’s going to be bad this year.”
So this is a cathartic essay, written in hopes of purging my expectation of seasonal despair. You see, I’m not a Scrooge. I’m a disappointed product of twentieth century American culture, and Christmas is for me the supreme symbol and expression of my alienation from that culture. Some years, it really pinches.
I grew up in an optimistic fifties suburb populated with the white ethnic veterans of World War II and their young families. The school I attended was one of those California Bauhaus bastards, thrown up without niceties to accommodate the fast-multiplying products of the Baby Boom. There were just a few other Jewish kids whose parents, like mine, were recent immigrants from the east coast, who’d taken advantage of the GI Bill to muster out in California and become proud owners of a tract home with its own little scrap of lawn, its scrawny sapling, its picture window looking out on more of the same. I could identify each and every one of those kids because we met up every December in the library, where we were sent while the rest of the class practiced Christmas carols.
This didn’t stop me from learning the words to many of them. I can sing “Silent Night” right this minute, or “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” I think I must have learned them from listening to the other kids or hearing them on TV or radio. In those pre-multicultural days, none of the Gentile students knew what Hanukkah was, or any of the more major Jewish holidays either.
I’m not sure how much this has really changed. A young friend recently reported that his school scheduled Homecoming on Yom Kippur and none of his Gentile classmates could comprehend why he felt so bad about it. The first soccer game of a recent year for another friend’s daughter was on Rosh HaShanah. Indeed, I was asked this year to take part in a conference on art and politics during the High Holy Days. It is a truth of this country, even today, that the dominant culture cannot be troubled to note the few days a years that would allow them to avoid giving offense to most Jews. If only the very holiest holidays of all the major religions were respected, it would reduce the size of the potential events calendar by perhaps twenty days a year. That this is too much to notice, year after year, hurts.
So I admit that resentment contributes to my seasonal despair. But that isn’t the heart of it. The root of alienation is longing. The media machinery of Christmas in America cultivates yearning the way factories turn out widgets. (I have Christian friends whose sadness at this season comes from advertising-induced nostalgia for a family embrace that never was.) The thing I longed for was to be enfolded in the warm blanket of love and cheer, to be part of the magic and delight, to be touched by the tender sentiment that was laid out every hour of the day on the other side of that candy shop window, the television screen. I pressed my nose against it, but I never saw anyone like myself inside. Instead, I understood that something very powerful was going on, something exciting and meaningful and somehow truly American, and part of its purpose in my life was to remind me that I was Other.
I hate to tell my family stories because they tend to inspire pity, which I tend to receive with shame. But as I am working toward catharsis, I am going to try for compassion and tell this one anyway. It was Christmastime when my grandmother started her long slide to the next world with a suicide attempt. I was fifteen. My mother was out on a date, as she often was five years after my father’s death. My brother and I were stuck home with my grandmother, whose paranoia grew each moment, like Jack’s beanstalk. I felt I would jump out of my skin with being watched and hounded; I felt trapped. As the feeling grew, I conceived the idea of walking to my best friend’s house, where her family would be gathered around the Christmas tree, sipping eggnog. If I didn’t call first, I thought, if I just showed up, they would have to take me in, no matter how inconvenient my appearance.
I slipped my coat on and tiptoed out. A block or so from my house, I began to breathe freely. Then I heard frantic footsteps, my grandmother chasing me. I ran. This was stupid, because the next block took me past the police station–with its seasonal complement of blinking colored lights–where my grandmother’s cries attracted the attention of an officer.
When this large uniformed man appeared, my grandmother and I fell silent, snapping to attention. The atavistic terror and ethnic solidarity we felt in the face of all-American constituted authority extinguished our other emotions like a wet thumb to a match. I’m certain we had the same thought: the Cossacks! (My grandmother had lost her father in a pogrom, and I’d heard the story so many times it might have happened to me.) We smiled, nodded obediently and probably curtsied, impersonating forgiveness sufficient to satisfy the officer. We trudged home in silence.
Later that night, when my mother arrived home, she heard a loud, repeating rasp from the room where my grandmother slept. Opening the door, she discovered my grandmother lying fully clothed on the narrow bed, grasping in each hand the end of a leather belt she’d tied around her own neck. She had taken all the sleeping pills left in a bottle—though not a fatal dose—then attempted to complete the deed through an act of self-strangulation that would, I suppose, have ended as soon as the pills took effect.
I feel compassion for my grandmother now, seeing how her life stumbled from loss to loss, and how almost until the end she found something to enjoy in it. I also feel the ruthlessness of her determination, shuddering to remember how she deployed it to do so much harm to others before she turned it on herself. She was not a kind person, so I suppose in the way of such things I have her to thank for my wish to be kind.
I can’t blame Christmas for my family’s pathology. I can’t even blame America. I can just say that at this season—tra-la-la-la-la—I feel the deep irony of my passionate commitment to this nation of which I am a part, of my outrage at the mess the entitled are making of it, and of the way each red and green glitter-encrusted moment reminds me of how deeply unwelcome I remain.
The other day while I did my exercises, I watched a sappy Christmas TV movie I’d recorded earlier. Noticing my red nose and dripping eyes, my husband asked why I watch these things if they make me sad. I admit it: White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, all of them, almost every year. It could be masochism, pure and simple, but I don’t think so. In truth, I think the yearning is still alive, and for ninety minutes, in an ecstasy of empathy with Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed or Rosemary Clooney, it can be fulfilled.
No one can say it better than Allen Ginsberg in his 1956 poem, “America.” Here are a few lines. Please read the whole thing:
America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over
I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let our emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.