A framed copy of Stephen Nissenbaum’s Sunday article, “The evolution of holiday celebrations,” and a copy of his book, “The Battle for Christmas,” will be a perfect belated Christmas gift for my mother. After all, the greatest Christmas “gift” she gave me, year in and year out in my youth, wasn’t a gift. It was an assignment to do a research paper on why we didn’t celebrate what she called a pagan holiday. I hated this — until now. This year, after decades of denial, inner conflict and outright defiance, this “gift” finally comes to fruition.
It began with a conversation at my grandparents’ dining room table a couple of weeks ago. They argued about who didn’t give who what for Christmas — and why — over the years. (They’re 92 now, and Grandma can’t hold her tongue like she used to.)
“Christmas is for kids!” Granddad said. He gives from his heart year-round, he explained.
“Christmas is the one time we celebrate the birth of Christ,” Grandma shot back.
“Christmas don’t have nothing to do with God!” said Granddad, a long-time dependable deacon in his church, to my surprise.
I looked at them both dumbfounded and quickly struck a conciliatory note. “God gave y’all a 70-plus-year marriage. That’s a gift most people will never get,” I said. That ended that conversation, but Granddad’s comment got me thinking.
For the next few days, I would link his sentiment to my mother’s crusade for the truth about Christmas. She had been raised Baptist, but as a young soul-searching woman had joined the Nation of Islam, then converted to Orthodox Islam. As a Muslim, she no longer believed in Christmas, to the dismay of her parents. Her soul-searching notwithstanding, my grandparents were determined to extend their family tradition of a Christmas feast and gifts for kids. They insisted that I, and my nine siblings, would have a little Christmas in our lives.
Fortunately, my eldest brother’s birthday is Dec. 23, so my parents compromised our Muslim dictates and claimed we were getting together to celebrate my brother’s birthday on Dec. 25. Before the big day, my mother took us to “Santa’s Secret Shop” to buy gifts for our grandparents, explaining that even as Muslims we could participate in exchange and reciprocation. Of course, while downtown shopping, we stopped to enjoy the elaborate Christmas displays that used to fill the department store windows at Woodward & Lothrop. We were allowed to join our grandparents for tree-trimming and hot cocoa and marshmallows toasted in the fireplace under the guise that we were simply honoring our grandparents’ traditions.
I felt deeply grateful for the envelopes with cash they placed at each of our plates on Christmas Day. At least when my friends at school bragged about all the toys, games and clothes they got for Christmas, I could say, “We don’t really celebrate Christmas, but we got money so we could buy whatever we want.”
Of course, when I started working, I began outright defying the Christmas restrictions of my youth. I bought presents for younger siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends. I began buying and storing Christmas gifts in April. For a few years I donned a corny Christmas Santa hat and arrived at my parents’ home with gifts for the little ones piled in a large plastic trash bag, clutched like a Santa sack. I loved the season, the celebration of abundance and the determination to have light even in darkness (such as having Christmas lights for the days when daylight is shortest). My Christmas spending spun out of control, growing into credit card debt at the end of the season. But, I could again break with the commercialization of Christmas.
Having experienced a financial drought the past three years, I had more time than money on hand. I spent the time reflecting on the non-material gifts in my life. My mother’s gift of soul-searching and independent thinking (do the research for yourself!) is one of the greatest gifts of my life. This year, time spent with friends and family felt better than ever.
For the first time, it occurred to me that family unity around my grandparents’ dining room table throughout my childhood and through my young adult years was an incredible gift that required mental and emotional gymnastics and maturity — by my parents and grandparents — to achieve. I continue to treasure the holiday feasts with family, and realize this is a priceless gift.
While out with friends last weekend visiting the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, photos in one of the exhibit hearkened us all back to our youth. We shared favorite experiences and lessons. Over dinner at a nearby tavern, one of my friends read Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “Speakin’ O’ Christmas”.
“Yellin’ at him, ‘Christmas gift.’/ Now sich things are never heard,/ “Merry Christmas’ is the word,” my friend Avis Matthews read. The others at the table, well-read librarian veterans, explained that in the past someone might yell “Christmas gift!” entering a room, and then deliver a song or tell a story as a “gift.”
That evening I began dabbling around the Internet looking for the history of Christmas and the history of Christmas gifts with more enthusiasm than I had when doing my mandatory Christmas research as a child. Finding other blogs on this subject made this gift of historical context all brand new.
Montgomery is a columnist for The Root DC.