When you’re the son of a Southern preacher and you move to the other side of the country and end up marrying a Jew who has never celebrated Christmas, you get to make the holiday into an occasion specifically crafted to your liking. There’s no family around to enforce the Old Ways, and your Jewish wife doesn’t know any better.
So it happened that I set out to remake Christmas in my own fashion. I took from the Christians their once-a-year nod to global peace and joy. From the Jews, I took the smirking amusement they seem to get from watching the Gentiles exhaust themselves in a frenzy of stress and obligation while they, the Chosen Ones, sit back and enjoy the eight-day sprawl of their second-string holiday, then go out for dim sum and a matinee.
My Christmas has its own prohibitions. Holiday air travel is out. Presents are allowed but not compulsory. Lights and decorations shall be minimal and crafted out of basic household materials. The Christmas tree, for example, can be any upright vegetation strong enough to support the weight of a construction-paper garland. The Christmas “tree” may also double as a Hanukkah bush if at least one of the decorations is blue and/or silver
Christmas music is forbidden in the household, but any acoustic neo-folk will be accepted in its place. A perfectly appropriate holiday mood can be set with Fleet Foxes or Iron & Wine. The general rule of thumb is: if the band members all have beards and sing in harmony, it will likely make a suitable musical backdrop for Christmas morning.
There are only two requirements. First, ham must be served. This observance is important because it clearly demarcates the line between Christmas and Hanukkah. I recommend a recipe handed down from my mother, sausage and cheese balls fresh from the oven, a sort of kosher kryptonite.
Second, the Nativity story should be read aloud. I crack open my Bible, stuffed with cartoon drawings scrawled on the back of offering envelopes from the interminable church services of my youth. Then we read aloud the story of a young Jewish couple, compelled to return to their ancestral hometown by imperial decree and forced by circumstance to give birth to a son in the garage of an overbooked hotel.
We reflect on this story. We open presents, if there are any. We relax, we check to see if there are any good movies playing. Then we phone our families, taking care to pin the right holiday wishes to the right branch of the family tree. As for us, we’ll accept either. Or both.
Brett Hamil is a Seattle-based comedian with a podcast called Ham Radio with Brett Hamil.
Illustration by Tom Dougherty.