Straddled between religions and countries, Eleanor Limprecht has always had to negotiate Christmas.
Growing up, I dreaded Christmas. I grew up with a Jewish mother and a Christian father, both from Omaha, Nebraska, the heartland of the United States. My mother (the daughter of a Jewish lawyer) and my father (the son of a Methodist journalist) met in college, where they bonded over their desire to get as far away from Nebraska as possible.
My parents agreed that my mother would raise my sister and I as Jewish, which my father’s job in the US State Department complicated. We moved to a new country every three years. There are Friday night Sabbath services in Germany, but there was no synagogue in Pakistan, where I lived aged 11 to 13.
So my Jewishness defined me more in how it made me different rather than how it made me part of something. Christian holidays were always minefields to navigate: I did not know what to do with the Christmas songs we sang at school, so I would mouth the word Jesus without actually saying it out loud, fearful that speaking it would mean God would strike me dead, or that I had to believe in a virgin birth.
When everyone else was celebrating Christmas, we celebrated Chanukah, the eight‑day festival of lights where we lit the menorah (with birthday candles) every night and opened gifts of socks, underpants, turtlenecks, tights and books. Sometimes we got a Christmas tree as well (always with a homemade, aluminium-foil-and-cardboard Star of David at the top), and there were presents on Christmas Day from my father’s parents. These were often matching dresses my grandmother had sewed herself that my sister and I dreaded, but still, it was exciting to unwrap something on Christmas Day.
We did not go to church ever, though my father went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve sometimes. There was never an invitation to join him, though he always came on our Christmas Day excursions to Chinese restaurants and the local movie theatre.
But we did have one Christmas tradition: our version of stockings. Christmas Eve my sister and I would take our longest socks and hang them up on the mantelpiece in our house. These were not special stockings, just regular, stained at the heel and toe, worn-out socks. After we went to bed my mother would put an orange or mandarin in the toe, then she would add some hotel soaps and miniature shampoos she had collected from whatever business trips she might have taken in the previous year. (My mother was an opportunist in hotel rooms – no miniature shampoo bottle left behind.)
She would also pilfer some free pens from her office, and things that were ours already that we had left out in the living room. Like – here are your sparkly hairclips, next time don’t forget to put them away. There was never even the slightest pretence that these things came from Santa; we knew that they were from Mom.
I realise now she was doing the same thing I did when I refused to say Jesus. By refusing to spend money on what went in our stockings, she was refusing to give credence to the whole concept of Christmas, staying staunchly Jewish. You want stockings, you got stockings. Feh! Who would want to be Christian? Not me!
Fast forward 20 years and my sister married a nice Jewish boy, and I married a nice Australian, who was agnostic and lived thousands of kilometres away. One of the first gifts my mother sent me in Sydney was a menorah. My children have rarely been to synagogue, but they have their own special mishmash of Christmas and Chanukah. We light the menorah a few nights, eat latkes if I can be bothered to grate a thousand potatoes and several of my knuckles, and open presents from their grandmother and aunt in America. Christmas is ham and pavlova in the heat, more boogie boards than anyone could possibly use, and a beer for Santa.
Now on Christmas Eve we hang dollar-store stockings, the cheap acrylic kind you can fit dozens of small presents in. My children unwrap pencils and chocolate bars and there is always a mango in the toe – the summer version of an orange. They take it all for granted, but the absence of religion in their lives means they’re less fearful of a vengeful God striking them down for practising the wrong one.
I’ve yet to embrace the old sock tradition, but perhaps this will be the year. I’d better go see what they’ve forgotten to put away.
Eleanor Limprecht is a Sydney-based novelist and writing teacher. Her fourth novel, The Coast, is coming out with Allen & Unwin in 2022.
First published in ed#650.
Illustration by Lauren Rebbeck.