Wontons for Christmas
Today’s blog entry is for the members of Creative High School English, and anyone else who values inclusivity.
I woke up today with the song “Sleigh Ride” in my head--specifically, with the opening riff of sleigh bells that this city kid associates more with Salvation Army Santas on the street than with pastoral rides through snowy fields. But whatever. It’s December, and I was hearing the bells and singing-jingling-ring-ting-tingling in my head, when I opened my eyes this morning. That song sounds like colorful lights to me, like snow, like hot chocolate... like, yeah, a long vacation from school! I cranked up the Ronettes’ version on my computer, and sang along.
I’m Jewish by birth, with deep cultural roots and shoots, atheist in my brain—or maybe shifting to agnostic as I age, and beginning to lean Buddhist in my body and soul. But I love December and Christmas in New York. I also feel like an outsider, a tourist in someone else’s country at this time of year. This week, I will walk
down to see the tree at Rockefeller Center with my Catholic partner, stopping to look at the holiday windows in the department stores, breathing in the scent of pine as we pass the people selling Christmas trees on the sidewalk, singing along to ubiquitous Christmas carols, and hoping the seasonal visitors to our city are enjoying it as much as I am. I will also grumble about Christian hegemony, and the general vibe that this is the biggest holiday of the year for everyone. And I will bemoan the fact that consumerism has contributed to this, and to the Christmas-ification of Chanukah and Kwanzaa.
These polarized feelings are my problem to wrestle with, and are nothing new. But as a teacher who has spent my career trying to facilitate an antibias curriculum, using reading and writing and stories--our own and others’--to step into each other’s shoes, I was a little aghast at the Christian hegemony on my generally inclusive English teachers' forum. Folks discussing their Christmas lessons, playing Christmas Jeopardy, looking for Christmas short stories, posting images of “inclusive” Christmas decorations that are LGBTQ-friendly but where many of us are decidedly left out.
And so I made a post about my complicated feelings, hoping that my fellow educators would give some thought to how they handle Christmas in their classrooms and schools. I wrote the following:
In this season of Christian hegemony, please remember that not everyone celebrates Christmas, and that contrary to popular belief, it is not an "American holiday." We love your sparkling decorations and the smell of pine trees on our city streets and your holiday windows and Christmas carols that we enjoy singing along to, and the warmth and good cheer at this time of year. We truly wish you a merry Christmas, and I don't mean happy nondenominational, neutered holidays. Your celebrations and traditions are beautiful. But the sovereignty, at this time of year, telegraphed visually, verbally and every which way, can feel alienating for those of us who are not Christian. In this particular group, which seeks to be antiracist and inclusive, I ask for your sensitivity and allyship for your students and colleagues who might be feeling like outsiders.
There were hundreds of likes and messages of solidarity. And fellow educators, thank you for that. On a post about othering and invisibility, I feel seen and heard and I know you see and hear our students. Some people launched a discussion about what to do in the classroom at this time of year--practical, respectful, useful. But there were also posts accusing me of waging a war on Christmas, posts putting harsh words in my mouth that I never uttered, dismissive comments, people liking negative comments, posts that made me wonder if the writer was antisemitic, Islamaphobic or just deaf, blind or knee-jerk reactive. Posts that felt like erasures. People whose comments smelled of that old trope, “Oh, they’re so sensitive.”
The moderators closed the comments section quickly. I'm still wondering if this was a good thing, to stop down the vitriol, or whether it silenced a deeply important discussion.
I write about intersectional issues fairly regularly and should be used to the invective, by now. But it never gets old. It never gets easy. Still. As Arlo Guthrie sang, in Alice’s Restaurant (google, young-uns), “If ya wanna end war and stuff, ya gotta sing loud.”
Cut to Christmas, when my Christian pals are in flannel PJs and ugly sweaters, opening gifts piled under blinking, glittering trees, gathering with family. I’ve sometimes been invited along and it’s been loads of fun. I’ve gone to midnight mass in Valladolid, Spain where a baby was being baptized--as good as any theater, with awesome liturgical music and imposing architecture. I’ve had a Feast of Seven Fishes at friends’ in Tuscany, with their extended family around a huge, heavy wooden table. At my partner’s, I like to add an origami bird to his white, tinsel Christmas tree with the disco light turning it so many colors. It’s nice to feel included.
But usually, my son and I go out for a good Chinese meal on Christmas--a tradition in many Jewish families. We belly up to the bar, and order a craft beer and a somewhat more lavish spread than usual, because, well... it’s a holiday, albeit someone else's! Why Chinese food? There’s a lot of interesting speculation and history online, but quite simply, since many Chinese and Chinese-Americans are also not Christian, these restaurants are open on Christmas. This meal has come to take on celebratory status for some of us. A bar-tender friend at a popular Chinese restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side told me it was always the busiest night of the year. Our Chinese banquet does double duty: celebrating the holiday, which surrounds us entirely, so of course we long to enjoy it, too, and honoring our outsider status together, a bunch of strangers in a jam-packed restaurant, competing for that last order of Cumin Chicken before it's 86ed.
What do Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus do on Christmas (to cite the second, third and fourth largest non-Christian populations in NYC)? Is there any equivalent for the Jewish tradition of Chinese food and a movie? As I write this, I’m realizing I have no idea. And this is part of my impulse to post on the English teachers’ forum--because sharing our stories is the way forward, in and out of the classroom.
What of Christmas in school? By posting on the teachers' forum, I hoped to convey that choosing to enjoy Christmas traditions as a non-Christian is different than feeling erased or like a Scrooge, because, wow, it seems like the whole world is at this party, but it ain’t your party, and you’re standing over by the punch bowl. Anyone from a marginalized community has stood at that punch bowl.
I want to bring in some of the solutions that my fellow English teachers posted in the discussion thread. For some, adding in other December traditions is the way to go--including Kwanzaa and Chanukah, winter solstice, Festivus. (Okay, okay, that last one is a Seinfeld creation.) Others choose to leave the religious iconography out and focus on seasonal traditions instead. I want to suggest a few other English teacher-y things: An explicit acknowledgment and discussion of this time of year--inclusivity, exclusivity, who and what is being centered (similar to the discussions we want to facilitate about race and class and gender and neurodiversity and more); book/short story groups that offer students diverse windows and/or mirrors for this time of year, and where they can choose their own reading and entry points; personal essay or fiction writing that allows for sharing our different traditions, experiences, feelings, possibilities. Chime in here with other ideas, educators.
Personally, I don’t want to see Christian educators taking down those joy-inducing decorations, or banning homemade sugar cookies with red and green sprinkles. It’s a wonderful time of year. But please step into our shoes for a bit as you plan these final weeks before winter break. (Yey!! Vacation for all!)
I leave you with a Jewish Christmas present: Grace Paley reading her short story, "The Loudest Voice."
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I've been blogging since 2010. When I've got writer's block in every other way (frequent), this low stakes riffing to think has been a constant. Over the digital years, I've had a half dozen or so blogs including a travel blog and a reading blog, both on Blogger, and an all-purpose blog on tumblr where I wrote about education, social equity and anything else that sparked me. I also posted some of my published print work on my website. My shit is all over the internet. I'll be using this space for the occasional blog post, now.