Where I was raised, in the land of ice and Chapstick, Christmas was not taken lightly. The North Dakota of my girlhood didn’t offer Barney’s-level windows styled by the 1960s equivalent of Lady Gaga, nor was it the Christmas of Bergdorf’s, a store that will surely sell out of the gold Burberry snowsuit it showcases in this year’s catalog, perfect for that infant who longs to look like an Oscar. You might imagine Fargo’s take to be more of the Martha Stewart variety, with silvery angels flitting among hand-tied bows, but that wasn’t it either, or even a holiday where rollicking rodents harmonized in falsetto.
Fargo went hardcore. Its Keep-the-Christ-in-Christmas Noel starred snow-covered Nativity scenes, heavily-attended church services, trees sagging with tinsel, sweaters that doubled as punch lines, and Norwegian delicacies:lefse, a flatbread concocted of the four blandest, whitest, red-state food groups—potatoes, milk, flour and lard; lutefisk, gelatinous whitefish, cured in lye; and cookies called krumkake, for that soupcon of scatological humor any family reunion requires.
And you think gefilte fish is unappealing? But I digress. The truth is I longed to join the hoopla, and that was not to be. Christmas stopped at my family’s front door, which was hidden behind a three-story-high blue spruce. (“Nice tree ya got there, Sam. Gonna trim her up?” “No, Knut, not this year.” Or ever.) When carolers stopped to sing “Oh, Holy Night” near the eve of the dear Savior’s birth, my mom served cocoa—she was a Jewish mother, after all. Once Santa made a surprise visit and nearly gave my brother a panic attack. But that was as close as our family came to merry-making, and my parents didn’t compensate with Hanukkah/Chanukah. However you spell it, the festival of lights is a perfectly fine, second-string celebration on the Jewish calendar, but it isn’t a high holiday, and they refused to be duped. We lit our menorah and tried to remember the second verse of “Dreidl, Dreidl, Dreidl.” There were not eight presents—maybe three, including flannel pajamas. There certainly wasn’t a tree masquerading as a Hanukkah bush.
Then I moved to Manhattan, where many people don’t give a flying figgy pudding if Christ is in Christmas as long as the holiday is splashy and commercial. To complete the Yuletide picture, I had job after job on women’s magazines, whose guilt-inducing December issues are often planned by Christmas-starved editors such as myself. We allowed our imaginations to run amok, inventing ways to crack the whip over glue-gun toting readers to get them to craft, decorate, bake, entertain, stocking-stuff, shop, wrap and mantel-scape 24/7 so their loved ones would be able to enjoy the Christmas that our Constitution guarantees. That this means American women are at risk of a collective stroke as they labor to create the most magical, perfect, joyous Christmases ever is not an editorial concern.
Planning 30-something Christmas issues of “McCall’s,” “Woman’s Day,” “Lifetime” and “Mademoiselle” thoroughly sucked the fun out of a holiday that wasn’t mine to begin with. These issues are executed in the hot, sweaty summer, so by the time December 25th arrived, I was well over my Xmas-lust, happy to go to a movie, preferably about the Holocaust, and eat Chinese food like many other self-respecting New Yorkers.
But this year will be different. Recently, both of my sons have married, and while neither of my daughters-in-law evinces the slightest interest in attending church, they each made clear to their husbands that they will continue to celebrate Christmas. This is non-negotiable. And so it has come to pass that the holiday will, in some way, become part of my family’s culture.
My Christmas won’t include a tree. I still draw a line in the sand, and a ten-foot, skirt-wearing Douglas fir with the Star of Bethlehem on top is beyond it. I’m also highly suspicious of eating any dish that features mincemeat—beef suet? really?—which any day now I expect the FDA to declare to be the shortest route to a valve replacement. But visions of sugar plums are nonetheless dancing in my head. I can’t yet buy shiny toys for grandchildren, but I’m seeing “The Nutcracker” as well as highly alcoholic eggnog in my future along with reruns of “Love, Actually”—this century’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I’ve baked cookies, many cookies, and Michael Buble’s retro-hip Christmas CD is looking rather tempting.
Will I be eating lefse and lutefisk? Not a chance. I’ll be way too full of Peking duck and General Tso’s chicken. Krumkake? If they sell it at Ikea, ya, you betcha.
Sally Koslow is the author of three novels, most recently "With Friends like These." In June, her first non-fiction book will be published by Viking: "Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty," which explores the lives of people in their 20s and 30s. She invites you to visit her website: www.sallykoslow.com and to follow her on Twitter: @sallykoslow.