A Little Slower Please – I’m Not That Fluent in Christmas

MeDadSantaToday Cindy Rizzo stopped by to give us her thoughts on this time of the year: 

Right on schedule during Thanksgiving weekend, the trees start showing up on Broadway. Crowded together on the sidewalk, tied up for easy carting to apartments on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, they add much needed greenery to the urban landscape.

And then the posts on Facebook begin. People shopping, baking, taking kids to see Santa, decorating their houses, turning on Christmas music and listing their top five holiday films. Last week, the food baskets from vendors started arriving at my office, tempting me and getting scarfed down by staff in a matter of hours.  Coworkers who spend the weekend baking will offer up surplus cookies and cakes.  And my evening calendar has already begun to fill up with parties and events.

Yes, you guessed it.  It’s that time of year—the time of being an American Jew at Christmas.

I watch this activity from a distance, even though it is swirling all around me and sometimes I’m even participating.  It’s really more of an emotional distance than a physical one.  Basically it comes down to the fact that I wasn’t raised with it and so all of the excitement and preparation and emotion borne of childhood memories just aren’t there.

I’m not one of those people who resent it or who complain about the hegemony of Christianity in the US.  Maybe because, even though I was raised Jewish in a Jewish neighborhood, my father and part of my extended family are Italian Catholic.  My Jewish mother—who instructed me never to kneel in church when we’d attend a baptism, wedding or First Communion on the Rizzo side—was also very clear when she said in so many words, “Enjoy the day with the family, but remember, this is not your holiday.”

So I had fun and was grateful for the presents I received and the home baked cookies and great family gatherings.  My dad put a tiny silver Christmas tree with pink lights in one window of our apartment and the electric menorah, the quintessential symbol of every Jewish home in the 1960s, in the other.  I never asked for the bigger tree or for a visit from Santa, though I didn’t really have to.  My father dressed up as Santa for both his grandkids and for the Jewish kids in our neighborhood.

So I have a fond appreciation for Christmas and all of its manifestations.  But I’m also not one of those people who can view it as secular, divorced from the birth of Jesus and merely a vestige of pagan winter rituals.  To me, it is not a winter holiday or an American holiday, or whatever.  It is a Christian holiday.  In any case, it sure isn’t Jewish.

It was odd and in some ways wonderful a few years back when I spent Christmas in Israel.  There were no trees, no lights, no cookies, no red and green.  In Tel Aviv, it was just another day.  All I kept wondering was, “How did they do that?”  I know if I’d been raised with Christmas, it would have been depressing to spend that day in a city that doesn’t acknowledge it.  But for me, it was kind of a relief.  Like taking a holiday from the holiday.

So what do I do on Christmas?  In the past I’ve seen family, which I sometimes still do.  When my kids were younger I spent the day with my friends and their kids, most of who did celebrate.  There was a stereotypical lesbian potluck and we always had a Yankee Swap where we wrapped white elephant gifts that could be traded amongst ourselves.  There were a few years when I took my kids to the Pine Street Inn, a homeless shelter in Boston, and we served Christmas dinner.

For my wife, Jenny, Christmas is a big art project.  She sends out scores of holiday cards following a meticulously crafted address list that notes each person as someone who needs a Christmas card, a Chanukah card or a generic holiday card.  Her envelopes, decorated with beautiful stickers, are works of art in themselves.  The people at the post office, who are usually pretty surly, love her.

Lately, Jenny and I have participated in what is known as The Jewish Christmas—Chinese food and a movie.  In Manhattan, the Chinese restaurants are mobbed on December 25th and the theaters—filled with Jews and Christian refugees fleeing their families—are jam-packed.

It seems like a fitting compromise, marking the day as somewhat special, being around my people, and having a fun time.

So to all who celebrate, have a Merry Christmas (or a Happy Christmas if you’re in the UK) and just remember that, for some of us, you’re gonna have to understand that on a gut level, we just don’t get it.  And that’s okay.  We’ll likely still drink the eggnog.

Cindy Rizzo

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About the Author : Astrid Ohletz


  1. Nikki Busch December 17, 2014 at 16:11 - Reply

    Great blog post, Cindy! I have many fond memories of spending Christmas in front of a plate egg rolls, fried rice, and chicken chow mein with my family. Happy Chanukah!

  2. Nancy Heredia December 17, 2014 at 17:33 - Reply

    Wonderful blog Cindy! Your perspective is sorely needed and it’s refreshing to hear it expressed so honestly.

  3. Susan Slohm December 17, 2014 at 18:02 - Reply

    Great blog Cindy. Switching up the tradition a little this year….going out for Japanese food!

  4. Fletcher DeLancey December 17, 2014 at 19:07 - Reply

    I love the idea of packed Chinese restaurants and movie theaters. In Portugal, Christmas is mostly celebrated on the 24th, so the 25th becomes the day of “Well, here we all are, but practically everything is closed. What shall we do?” So my wife and her brother had a long-standing tradition of going to the movies every Christmas Day.

  5. Ona Marae December 17, 2014 at 22:35 - Reply

    Thanks for sharing this, Cindy. I’ve also got Native American friends who feel similarly to you, but I must say that even to this Christian, homemade frybread will beat out egg rolls nearly every time! Come west some December, and we’ll see if we can’t scare some up for you!


  6. Michelle Aguilar December 18, 2014 at 06:46 - Reply

    This was totally interesting to read, Cindy. As a person who was raised for some formative years in a Christian religion that shunned just about every American religious-based holiday including Christmas, I understand the sense of distance from Christmas and it’s frenetic run-up everywhere that you talk about here.

    However,I have forgotten what it’s like to feel on the outside looking in, since it’s been many years since I left that religion and I’ve fully embraced Christmas since then, so I do forget what it’s like for my Jewish friend, who just texted me a couple of days ago at the start of Hanukkah about how ignored she feels during this time of year. This article made me think of her. I’m going to forward this link to her.

  7. Devlyn December 18, 2014 at 10:31 - Reply

    Thanks for this Cindy, it gives me another perspective that I very much appreciate.

  8. Andi Marquette December 21, 2014 at 00:16 - Reply

    I was not raised in any religious tradition and I’ve maintained that throughout my life. So this time of year is particularly “meh” for folks like me, who certainly aren’t included in any of the “high holies,” as I call ’em. There are aspects of Christmas that I enjoy: the lights and some of the decorations. I also think some aspects of Hanukkah are particularly lovely. As for me, I lean more toward Solstice as something to observe this time of year, and I really like some of the principles behind Kwanzaa. As far as I’m concerned, I try to do lots of good works this time of year (more than I usually do the rest of the year) because the world always needs love n’ fun, and it seems to me this time of year could use a lot more love and a lot less commercialism and crazy.

    My attitude is, celebrate as you wish, as long as it makes you happy and brings you internal joy and peace. If you don’t celebrate anything, do something this time of year anyway to mark the passage of a year and to bring yourself some comfort n’ love. Unless you’re perfectly content not acknowledging anything this time of year. That’s perfectly fine, too.

    And for the record, I plan to spend December 25th watching lots of movies at home, eating a ton of popcorn. 😀

    Thanks for the thoughts, Cindy.

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