I have never known what to do on Christmas.
It is 1993. I am 24-years-old and about 10 days sober. I am laying in a shallow bathtub when my mother calls to wish me a Merry Christmas.
“We’re Jewish,” I say.
“So what?” she replies. “It’s still Christmas. And it’s fun.”
“I wish I were in Israel,” I say.
When I was growing up, my cousin Wendy hosted an annual “Chanukkah Party on Christmas Day for Jews Who Have Nothing To Do.” It was a raucous affair with latkes, dreidels, wine, and even a couple of nuns Wendy worked with at the Sisters of Mercy, where she managed their pension fund.
But that was many years ago.
In 1994, the year after my bathtub lament, I moved to San Francisco. There, with my Irish-Catholic roommate Tim, I purchased my first Christmas tree and participated in the post-holiday “tree toss” out the second-story window of our Haight-Ashbury apartment – Tim spotting from the sidewalk while I heaved the heavy trunk out the curved glass window.
A year later, I experienced the Jewish Christmas tradition of Chinese food and a movie for the very first time — an experience I had missed due to Wendy’s parties.
One more orbit around the sun had me hosting my very own Christmas Eve dinner — an effort to assuage my British boyfriend’s longing for family and Christmas cake from Marks and Spencer. The guest list was made up of friends who filled my home for Rosh Hashanah and Passover dinners, and I cooked up a pot of risotto while my partner made chocolate pie.
By now I had discovered most San Francisco transplants don’t return “home” for the holidays – Thanksgiving or Christmas — and the city is ripe for a Jewish-British Christmas dinner party followed by a bike ride or a movie and dim sum the next day.
In 2007, now married, we moved to Chicago — where everybody goes home for the holidays. To the suburbs. To Michigan or Ohio. Indiana or Wisconsin. Where there are few strays or orphans.
For the next four years, each December we would ask ourselves “to gather or not to gather.” Sometimes we did — opening our home and our hearts. Other times we simply facilitated — reserving two large, round tables in Chinatown and waiting to see who would join us. Occasionally, we were invited to someone else’s celebration.
We spent our last Christmas together in Seattle – where we had moved a few months earlier. I made a final vat of risotto while my friends Earl and Jesse jammed with my husband on guitar.
A year later we were divorced and I found myself once again in Chicago – scrambling for a plan. I have no recollection of what I did that year. And only vague ones of dinners at Min Hing in the two seasons that followed.
Last December, I spent Christmas in Cologne with my sixth-grade lab partner. I was living in Madrid, just a few hours flight away. She picked me up on Christmas Eve with a trunk full of food – explaining the grocery markets would be closed until December 27. At 5 p.m. the airport Starbucks had already closed.
We cooked, ate, talked for hours and went for long walks down wide boulevards that reminded me of Chicago’s Logan Square. On Boxing Day we visited the Christmas markets and stuffed ourselves with giant potato pancakes topped with sour cream and applesauce. It was, without a doubt, my best Christmas.
This December, as the days grew near, I waited to hear if anyone would be “gathering the troops” for Peking Duck. But all I heard was silence. I considered spearheading the process as I had so many times before, but frankly felt too exhausted.
It seemed I would be alone … that is, until an ex-boyfriend phoned a week before the holiday.
“Why don’t you take the train down and join mom and me for Chinese food and TV back at the house? You can spend the night or if you prefer, I can drive you home,” he said brightly, adding, “Mom is really excited to see you.”
Lovely. And yet.
His invitation felt intimate and familiar. Too intimate. Too familiar. A little girlfriend-y. Except I wasn’t his girlfriend anymore.
I sat with his invitation for nearly a week until the morning the words “What do you want to do?” slipped off of my pen while journaling. And then, “What would be fun?”
“A Writers Retreat.”
The words came quickly, followed by, “Meditate. Exercise. Read. Face mask. Bath salts. Beautiful food.”
When I mentioned this to my friend Nikki, she offered up her apartment as a “retreat facility.” She and her husband would be traveling to Wisconsin to be with family. A few days later my friend Clover suggested I open one of her Chanukkah gifts to me early. It was a turmeric and gold clay face mask. “For your retreat,” she explained, smiling.
That night I wrote my ex-boyfriend a note — thanking him, but declining his invitation.
I thought about my 45th birthday. The first one I spent alone – by choice — waking up in Rome and going to bed in Paris.
Upon hearing my plans, my mother asked, “Will you like being alone on your birthday?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “We’ll find out.”
Walking across the Seine, looking out at the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, a thought rose up inside of me. “I don’t wish a man were here. I don’t wish a friend were here. That I wore something different or ate something different. I don’t wish anything was different than it is.”
It was a revolutionary idea. One I didn’t choose to think. Instead, it lived inside of me, speaking with its own voice.
Two years later, I returned to Paris — alone — for my 47th birthday.
I woke up in Chicago and went to bed in Chicago. And in the hours between, I ate smoked salmon, pomegranates, chocolate and fresh dates. I slathered my face with gold clay and soaked in the bath reading Julia Child’s “My Life in France.” I wrote. I meditated. I danced, napped and wrote some more.
I didn’t wish I was in Israel. Or Cologne. With my ex-boyfriend or ex-husband or a friend. Eating dim sum, riding my bike or watching a movie. I didn’t wish anything was different than it was.
I was Jewish, solo and sans Chinese food. And Merry on Christmas.