This Refugee's Christmas

Winter Show at a Day Care I hated with a passion, circa roughly 1987-1988

Winter Show at a Day Care I hated with a passion, circa roughly 1987-1988

My first holiday season in America, I thought “Merry Christmas” was synonymous with “Happy New Year.” And it wasn’t just because between all two of my friends and myself we could barely string together enough words to form a sentence in English; it was because, growing up in a country that no longer exists (namely-Soviet Union), New Year’s was all we knew. Sure, we’d heard of Christmas (though Russian-Orthodox Christmas is celebrated in January), but to have a whole week off from school for it was unheard of. If you’re going to be off, it has to be for New Year’s! DUH!

To this day, I seem confuse people both ethnically and religiously. And it’s a complex matter, I’ll give you that. Russian-Speaking Jews will rarely identify themselves as Russian, and that’s for a good reason: decades were spent convincing us that we’re not Russian! Sure, we were citizens of the good ol’ Soviet Union, just like the “real Russians,” but ethnically, everywhere it mattered, our Jewishness was pointed out. I’m talking birth certificates and teacher’s rosters. Ironically (or not), officially, there was no religion back in the old country so all things Judaism bypassed me completely growing up. Same was theoretically true of my Christian peers, though, unlike Jews, who rarely liked drawing attention to themselves, in the days of Perestroika, the “Russian” folk did start wearing crucifixes and occasionally attending church services in the open. But that one thing that united us all was New Year’s Eve.

New Year’s was this totally godless holiday that celebrated ousting the old year and hailing in the new, complete with a new year’s tree, presents, and Father Frost (think Santa Clause but in a different getup and accompanied by his granddaughter…I don’t know why, but somebody should look into it). Yes, that looks and sounds exactly like Christmas (well, minus that suspicious “granddaughter” situation). Apparently, the whole thing started back in the early years of the socialist regime, when all things religious were outlawed but the Party leaders recognized that the people still craved that winter holiday. New Year’s Eve was thus sanctioned. Or so the story goes. Whenever I’m asked to explain it (and that’s usually when I bust out my holiday lights and a decked out tree), I say, it’s like Christmas, only six days later and minus the whole Jesus thing. But literally everything else is the same. And boy, was it a big deal! It was special and wonderful, and we stayed up half the night watching the same movie year after year (Irony of Fate-it’s awesome, watch it!). You won’t meet an immigrant/refugee/ex-pat from whatever republic that used to belong to the Soviet Union who does not have warm and fuzzy feelings about New Year’s eve (and day). It was the holiday for every Soviet child and adult. Sure, we had birthdays and Victory Day and May Day and International Women’s Day, but it was for New Year’s Eve that the fancy china came out and salad Olivier was made in bulk. That shit is not easy to let go.

Two+ decades of an immigrant life experience, no matter the good, the bad, or the ugly, leaves you jaded whether you like it or not. It’s called growing up. Eventually, New Year’s, being of little interest to my American friends in any way that felt familiar, slowly lost its luster. I no longer await it with butterflies in my stomach, I no longer make wishes for the new year, it no longer feels like starting anew. Thus this holiday remains one of the very few things I miss about my country of birth; and much like it, it remains in my past. But you know what tries to fill that hole every year? Christmas! No, not in its religious sense. Mine is a commercial Christmas most people complain about. The chocolates, the gift-wrapping, the glorious tree. It’s the closest thing I’ve got to New Year’s that I can actually share with those around me and I’m sticking to it. That’s when my family gathers (yes, around a table full of Chinese food containers) and exchanges New Year’s presents…all the while listening to Christmas songs.

Sure, you can add a layer to this: I’m a refugee, an immigrant, forever desperate to blend, to adapt, to finally be American. No wonder I’m grasping at Christmas! And you know what? Maybe you wouldn’t be wrong on some level. It is here, in America, after all, that I finally felt that it was okay to look and be different from my peers because, by definition, everyone in America was always meant to look and be different from each other (right?!). My teachers no longer saw “Jewish” next to my name when going down the list of students and that alone felt like feat even back in 1994. And yet, every time somebody expresses skepticism over my affinity for Christmas and reminds me that Hanukkah begins at sundown, I wonder if it’s my semitic looks that prompt the conversation or the well-intentioned political correctness. And that triggers all sorts of trauma—I am again reminded of the fact that, if I am to forget that I’m Jewish, somebody will remind me. Even in America. But I digress…

So yes, forever the agnostic, and yes, one hopeful Jewish citizen of the world, I can’t see why I can’t have both—latkes for Hanukkah and a whole lot of outdoor Christmas lights. Hell, if I wouldn’t be so keenly aware that I am simultaneously judged by both Christians and Jews every Christmas (for being an impostor by Christians and a traitor by Jews, from what I am able to gather), I’d go even more out: stockings and caroling! Maybe next year.