The last decision had an asterisk. We agreed that we would celebrate a secular Christmas at his family’s house unless there was some major reason we could not attend. Then, and only then, would we have a Christmas tree in our home. So began our lives together.
We did remarkably well those first years. We hired the mayor of my parent’s town to conduct a beautiful outdoor wedding that included both of our traditions, we held mish-mashed Passover
in our tiny apartments. I went to Chabad services for the High Holidays on my own, while my dear husband prepared a break fast that rivaled any Jewish mother’s. And there was no Christmas tree.
I got pregnant in March of 2003. Immediately, I began to do the math. If the baby were born on time, he would arrive on December 10. That should give him enough time to grow sturdy enough to handle the four-hour ride to my husband’s family’s house for Christmas.
December 10 came and went. Still no baby. I told myself it was OK, though. His parents would make the long drive to visit us and certainly I could survive the Christmas tree. It would just be that one time, after all.
The days kept passing and still no baby. Along with all those “first baby” anxieties, my mind swirled with dates. If he came on the 14th, we could have the bris on the 22nd, before my husband’s parents arrived, and then the baby and I would be home in time to have a quiet celebration with everyone. Just as long as he wasn’t born on the 18th. The 18th would mean that his bris would be on Christmas Day, and since my parents lived six hours away and made a big chunk of their income during the holiday weeks (their business caters to tourists), they wouldn’t be able to make it. Had I known the contrary little fellow he would grow up to be, I could have predicted that my son would chose that day–the ONE day that would turn everything upside down–to make his grand entrance.
Charlie was born on December 18th. He emerged sunny side up, screaming at the top of his lungs. Four days later, my Irish-Italian-Catholic in-laws arrived with piles of presents and hearts full of love for their very first grandchild. On Christmas Day, they decorated our tiny plastic Christmas tree with glittery ornaments, packed up my 8-day-old baby and me, and together, we headed to the local Chabad center.
The rabbi didn’t even bat an eye when we arrived. He never made my husband feel uncomfortable for not being Jewish. He never made me feel bad for not having a sandek (the name given to the person who holds the baby during a circumcision) present. He never questioned why my Catholic in-laws were there instead of my Jewish family. Instead, he welcomed us all like the united family that we had become. We crowded together in that small room, joined by the love of that perfect baby. And when I teared up at his hurt cries, the rabbi’s wife and my mother-in-law comforted me. Together.
My in-laws spent that first whole week with me. My mother-in-law held my newborn so I could get some sleep and taught me how to hold him in just the right position to burp. She made the long drive back again after my other two were born, staying as long as six weeks when I had complications. She is a sweet, playful loving grandmother to my children and a dear friend to me. Never once has it mattered that she isn’t Jewish.
Ten years have passed since my oldest son was born. To be honest, I’m still not entirely comfortable with the tree (which, as I predicted, has now become a staple), but I have come to cherish the sense of togetherness that comes with Christmas. And that’s exactly how we celebrate it. No Santa, no church. Just a day to be together with my husband’s family, laughing, eating and playing goofy board games. If a tree makes them feel more celebratory, then it’s a small price to pay for the joy of being together.
Because, somewhere along the way, this special day with its glittery lights and spiced cookies ceased being someone else’s holiday and became mine too. It’s not about religion or shopping frenzies, though. It’s the anniversary of the occasion that brought me together with my husband’s family. Our first Bris-Mas. And that is something that I’m thankful for every day.