Baltimore writer Christine Grillo describes her inner Christmas Grinch whose tiny heart recently grew a couple of sizes.
I imagine that every family in America has its own version of “How did my children get so spoiled?” Growing up, it was at Christmastime that my siblings and I heard my father’s version of the refrain. His family had lived humbly, five people residing for 30 years in a two-bedroom apartment in Gravesend, Brooklyn. “At Christmas, we each got one gift, and we were happy to get it,” he told us, many times.
Our Christmas traditions included things like a Sicilian antipast’, which is definitely not the platter of mozzarella and cured meats that you just pictured. This antipast’ is a dish of sliced celery in a pool of anchovy and lemon juice, with tiny bits of other things to keep it interesting. (It’s delicious, by the way.) Another tradition was the story of the “foo bird,” a tall tale involving a made-up bird, three hapless explorers, some toxic bird guano, and a fortune. My father always ended the story with the moral: If the foo shits, wear it.
On Christmas Eve, we played a family game of Candyland, in which we could win actual candy by drawing a lucky card and being sent to, for example, the Peppermint Forest or the Lollipop Woods. All year, we were seriously, mercilessly deprived of candy, so the stakes in this game were high. Shit got real. My sister swears that, every year, the game ended with children crying, my father yelling, and everybody getting sent to bed early. I’ve blocked it out, but I believe her.
Some years, my mother made the Christmas Eve dinner of the seven fishes, but we five children were picky eaters, and we avoided everything that came after shrimp scampi. One year, my three brothers got pocketknives from Santa, and my youngest brother, who was maybe seven, ended up in the emergency room.
When I got to college in New York, I discovered a wonderful thing: Jewish Christmas. Jews ate Chinese food on Christmas, followed by a movie. Sometimes two movies! For Jews, Christmas was, like, a day off from work with nothing to do. For 20 years, I’ve yearned for Jewish Christmas, but it’s not that easy for a shiksa, especially one who marries a Greek guy whose mother loved Christmas.
In every goyim couple, I believe, there is a Christmas Grinch and a Christmas Pollyanna. In case you haven’t figured it out yet—I’m the Grinch. The Grinch is pained by the monetary costs and the externalized costs of Christmas: the packaging that goes into landfills, the deforestation, the electricity consumed, the gasoline used in all that cross-country shipping, the air pollution created by all the cars driving at two miles per hour on Interstate 95. Don’t get me started on the labor conditions of the people who make most of the things we buy. You don’t want to say “carbon footprint” anywhere near me in the month of December. (Although, to be fair, I’m a pathological carbon footprinter. I can suck the joy right out of eating a mango in winter.) But, so you know that I’m a hypocrite, let me be clear—every year, despite my disdain, I commit as many Christmas sins as the next person.
Sometimes I wonder if we, the American public, are actually human batteries plugged into some kind of Matrix-like Christmas industry machine. The wires plugged into our brains tell us we love the holiday, and so we keep shopping and driving and feeding the beast. Oh, Morpheus, where are the red pills?
But this is where I have to get a hold of myself. Largely thanks to my husband, we have three children who genuinely like Christmas, and not just the gifts. They like the twinkling tree, the smell of piney wreaths, the trips to visit family, the roasted lamb (highest carbon footprint of all animal products), and they like the baking of the Greek koulorakia (which are actually Easter cookies, but never mind). One of them—the girl, duh—even genuinely enjoys watching It’s a Wonderful Life. They love Christmas so much; I couldn’t ask them to give it up for General Tso’s chicken.
Over the years, I have collected my own little Christmas traditions that bring me joy. For most of yuletide, I play in my car A Child’s Christmas in Wales, and yes, it’s the one narrated by Dylan Thomas himself. This year, I’m in love with the line, “I was in Mrs. Prothero’s garden, waiting for cats.” Also, I sing “The Little Drummer Boy” as much as my children will tolerate. Every time, I’m slayed by the drummer boy when he says to the infant Christ, “Little baby, I am a poor boy, too, I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give a king, Shall I play for you on my drum?”
And now I have a new thing that I genuinely love about Christmas. One morning last week, my seven-year-old and I were negotiating how much of the egg has to be consumed to “pass” breakfast, and I got a call from a telemarketer. It had something to do with terminally ill children. “Good morning, Christine,” she said. “I’m calling, Christine, to ask you for a donation,” and she explained the organization’s mission, and then she said, “Now, Christine, some of these kids are gonna die. They’re not gonna make it to their next birthday.” That was a good recalibration for me. The Grinch’s heart grew a couple sizes, and I actually felt grateful for these calls, because they remind me that (a) I’m a lucky person who doesn’t at this moment need charity, and (b) the best way to feel Christmas cheer is to give away some dough.
It’ll be years before I get to do Jewish Christmas, but that’s all right. Until then, there’s plenty to enjoy, and I will try to live by this simple rule for surviving the holiday: Nobody gets pocketknives, and everybody gets candy.
Christine Grillo is a contributing writer at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in magazines and journals such as BSO Overture, Baltimore Style, LIT, The Southern Review, Utne Reader, and Urbanite. She is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins master’s program in creative writing, and a fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.