I will always have fond memories of my first real Christmas, which occurred when I was 28 years old and a law student. Having grown up in a non-Christian culture, Christmas barely moved the needle on my compass; it was nothing more than a two-week school holiday during which I would escape the icy New York winter by traveling to Florida with my parents and sisters.
In fact, until I was ten years old, I never felt I was missing out on a thing. Sure, we didn't have a Christmas tree, blinking lights or piles of presents, but neither did any of my friends with whom I attended a deeply religious private school. Even in my public junior high and high school, the very large number of non-Christian students in the community resulted in Christmas being muted into a virtual non-entity.
Things changed for me a bit when my family moved about 70 miles north midway through my junior year of high school. I'd always gawked at the Christmas displays at the mall, secretly in awe of the garish decorations and lights, all geared to suck the parking lot full of moths into the capitalist flame. But this was my first experience with a school where they literally decked the halls, At home, we'd tune in to the local radio station in the morning while we were eating breakfast and getting ready for school and work. I'd listen attentively when the jewelry store commercial came on, always starting with a vocal rendition of "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." If the announcer finished reading the news and put on a recording of "Silver Bells" or "The Little Drummer Boy," I knew my mother would quickly change the station. But I picked up what snippets of Christmas culture I could so that I didn't seem like a total doofus at school. I smiled, I nodded and I pretended a lot, leaving an explanation that I was of a different faith as a very last resort, knowing the looks of pity I'd receive.
Our family trips to Florida during Christmas vacation yielded some amusing moments from time to time. The drive took about 24 hours, and we'd frequently be on the road on Christmas Eve. As we rolled through rural areas of the South on the interstate, only one or two radio stations wuld come through the crackling static up and down the dial. If a preacher was holding forth or the ubiquitous Christmas music was playing, my mother would yell at my father, "Turn that off! I don't want to hear it!" But sometimes it would be late at night, Mom would be sleeping and my father would need to play the radio to stay awake as we cruised down I-95 through Virginia and North Carolina. My sisters and I would be in the back seat, with me in the middle to keep the girls from fighting, where eventually I'd endure one sleepy head conked out on each shoulder. On the radio, José Feliciano would be singing "Feliz Navidad." One of my sisters would wake up and we'd listen closely. We didn't understand a word of Spanish, but later, when my parents weren't in the room, we'd try to imitate what we thought sounded something like "fay-less buh-dee-dud."
The year I was 12 years old and my sisters were eight and ten, we stopped for dinner at a roadside diner in South Carolina on Christmas Eve. The waitress proceeded to gush over how cute we were. "Is Santy Claus gonna bring you lots of presents tonight?" the waitress cooed. The three of us looked down, embarrassed, in silence. "They're shy," my father apologized. All of us knew that there are many places where it is just assumed that everyone is a Christian, particularly such a lovely looking family with such cute children.
When I graduated from college and started working, that's when I really started to appreciate Christmas. No one wanted to work that day, giving me the opportunity to pick up extra shifts and overtime money. But it wasn't until I moved to Massachusetts to attend law school that I experienced Christmas firsthand.
My first year in law school, I disappeared right after final exams to make the trek to Florida by car with my parents. My sisters had long since married, moved away and had started their own families. I grabbed my girlfriend and the four of us headed south. Things did not go so well on this particular trip; my parents argued incessantly, alternately yelling at each other and at me. I vowed that this would be my last time.
The next year, I stayed put in Massachusetts for Christmas break. Along with several other law students, I was renting a room from empty nesters who had found themselves rattling around in a huge house and decided to have all those empty bedrooms help pay the bills. In early December, as I was pulling all-nighters and generally freaking out about impending final exams in several classes in which I was not doing well at all, the McGees put up an enormous Christmas tree in the living room, decorating it with tiny lights and many ornaments that their children had made or given them over the years. Soon, gifts started appearing under the tree. I noted the steady accumulation as I headed out the door to school each day. It began as a trickle of boxes and ribbons, and slowly picked up into a stream, a river and then a veritable torrent! By the time I had finished my last exam and my girlfriend drove up from New York to spend a few weeks with me, one side of the living room was covered with a deep pile of literally hundreds of gifts. The McGees' four children would be home for Christmas, three of them with their spouses. There were many gifts for everyone, which Mrs. McGee had lovingly purchased throughout the year. One of her sons-in-law, who grew up without a mother and was not accustomed to such holiday hullaballoo, dubbed this spectacle "death by presents." As for me, well, I had never seen such a thing in all my life. I gawked in awe. And I knew there was only one thing to be done: When in Massachusetts, do as the Yankees do. I headed for the card shop across the street from the law school, bought several rolls of wrapping paper and began making my own contributions to the growing pile. After all, I planned to be there on Christmas Eve, not in a car on the way to Florida, and I wondered how many hours it would take to open all of these, whether a shovel or a backhoe would be needed to reach the bottom of the pile, and whether any of us would ever see the living room carpet again.
It turned out to be a lovely experience. I wasn't quite sure of the appropriate etiquette for witnessing the dismantling of Mount Generosity, but it was comforting to me that I would be spared the embarrassment of having to open gifts myself.
But sitting in the convivial glow of the fireplace, listening to the laughter of the McGee family, sipping egg nog and watching the pile of torn wrapping paper grow higher and the mountain of presents grow smaller, I realized that I hadn't missed a thing growing up.
I could never have appreciated the beauty of Christmas back then.