By Denise Balkissoon
Last year about this time, I went to visit a friend with a new baby. It was a visit that has scarred me for life. First, I called the baby by the wrong name. Then, I said what I was getting my partner for Christmas in that voice that means “and what are you getting your partner for Christmas?” My friend told me what she got him for Hanukkah because, like, they’re Jewish. After years—nay, decades—of resisting Christmas assimilation, I had fallen prey to its insidious tentacles. I was mortified.
I wish I wasn’t so tortured by Christmas, but I am. My family has always played fast and loose with the holiday. Meet Raggedy Anne, who I got when I was four. My dad’s job had taken my family to Saudi Arabia, which is not a place known for sales of Christmas wrapping paper; I found Anne behind the curtains in the living room. Back in Canada, most of my 20 aunts and 19 uncles (crazy, right?) gave out presents, but I had 50 or so first cousins (totally crazy, right?) who also needed something to unwrap. My haul was big, but fairly budget.
Around my tween years, my Muslim relatives began to make the religious pilgrimage to Mecca. They became much more devout, and there went half my presents. Meanwhile, my Christian, Hindu and agnostic relatives realized that the size of our family was bankrupting everyone. There went the other half. Since Christmas didn’t actually mean anything to my immediately family (we’re the agnostic-est), adherence to prescribed rituals petered off. After my mom survived cancer, she asked that we donate to charity rather than exchange gifts. Soon, putting up the (fake) tree just seemed like work. One year, we decorated a plant in the hallway instead.
The end of presents was the death knell for any connection that I had with the Christmas masses. I've spent years without entering the mall in December. This is amazing for my mental health, and has instilled in me an annoyance for the ubiquity (and, not to get all Kalle Lasn here, the unfettered consumerism) of the season. You can’t buy a box of tampons these days without Mariah and the Biebs crooning about the joy at hand. Listen, can you hear it? The tinkling sleighbells, the laughter of children, the throbbing CHRISTMAS-CHRISTMAS-CHRISTMAS pulse of compulsory socialization.
Let me tell you, people get way judgey about how the holidays should go down. When I say my fam doesn't do presents, some people look like they want to cry. Back when we did gifts but skipped the tree, a friend’s mom remarked “Presents? That’s your Christmas?” in a straight-up mean girl voice. This from a hardcore second-wave feminist with little respect for J.C. (the church is a bastion of patriarchy, duh). I’m personally a proponent of putting Christ back into Christmas—otherwise, what is all this about, again? But what do I know, I don’t even have a tree.
I asked my mom once why she’d ever done Christmas in the first place, since her family was never Christian. She said it was about being Canadian, about assimilating and getting into the holiday spirit. Putting up a tree and unwrapping presents didn’t make you Christian. It made you a good sport. Fair enough, but Toronto was more homogenous when she got here, and assimilation isn’t the way we do it this millennium. Apologies if you’ve heard me say this before, but it’s super annoying to me that charities push their message so hard this month, then freak out if donations are less than last year. Muslims are big into food donations at Eid, and everybody likes to throw money around at their respective new years. Pay attention.
Now I’ve married into a family who does do December 25, so I’m back in the game. I slough off most of the shopping, but I do a mean Kraft-paper wrapping job (mockery of which by my brother-in-law is now my own special tradition). I jiggle babies, and stir stuff, and encourage my hosts to open the wine I’ve brought and save their homemade stuff for themselves. The best part is when my mother-in-law breaks out a selection of the 300 or so cookies she makes every year—most are sold at her church bazaar, but she saves us the green-icing topped butterscotch squares.
Yeah, it’s pretty much good times. I am overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity, and confused about why exactly I am so blessed. And I hope to never again forget that not everyone in this country does the Christmas thing, and that’s actually what I like about it here.