On time for once, he trudged into the class pulling a small pine tree behind him, a stand in his other hand. His chin was set. His curly hair braided in two plaits instead of flying all around his head added to his air of determination.
“It’s a tree.”
“I see that.”
“I wanna make it a Christmas tree. I want a Christmas tree with lights and decorations. I want to know what it looks like, and see it looking pretty every day.”
“So you’re taking it home?” He rolled his eyes in my direction, and I grinned apologetically. “Just checking. I guess it’s haram?”
“Extremely haram.” Faisal has most of the brains, four times the looks, but far less of the focus and drive of his older brother Abdul, now in his sophomore year of a top 50 university. Not unknown to the administrators for all the wrong reasons, Faisal nonetheless has held onto a 3.5 GPA and, barring a last semester senior catastrophe, a decent chance at a good college.
And so I acquired a tree. I showed Faisal how to put the tree in the stand, and we steal some water from a classmate.
“The vendor across the street gave it to me for free! He’s Yemeni, maybe that’s why.”
“No, I’d guess his generosity is due to the trunk bending sharply forward before it goes up.”
“Do you have the..the lights? The things you hang on them?”
“Ornaments.” I looked sideways. “You are expecting me to decorate?”
Faisal has a charming grin.
The tree was an instant hit with all my students, even sitting in the corner unadorned, as it did for a week. Someone noticed that the tilt kept pulling it over, so we snuck outside and grabbed some painted tiles from the garden to weight the stand down. Students volunteered from their water bottles to keep the tree hydrated. I took three days and a weekend to bring in lights (one day to find them in my garage, one to pull the box down, one to sit by the door to be forgotten, weekend to put them in my car so I couldn’t forget them), another two days to bring in the ornaments. Then one day four top students finished a quiz early and I assigned them “light” duty. I have a huge collection of gorgeous ornaments, some hand-blown glass, others hand made, some just utterly beautiful, that they all oohed and ahed over. Faisal got to select his favorites.
The vocational cooking teacher teased me for taking nearly a week to complete the tree, but she readily agreed my end product was far superior to the one her student put up in 30 minutes–and I still had it done two weeks before break. Each morning, I turned the lights on to twinkle cheerily throughout the day. Very festive. I have these old plastic window coverings, one with Santa peeking around the corner, one with bells, and on impulse taped them over my door windows, where they hung, unmolested and unbroken, for the better part of two weeks, the kids carefully closing the door without tearing them.
Four of my nine ELD students are either Muslim or Hindu, and they haven’t been here that long. I carefully explained “secular” as opposed to “religious”, reassuring them that the tree was in celebration of the former. The other half of the class is Catholic, either Guatemalan or Filipino, so were surprised to learn that not everyone celebrated Christmas as a religious event. My math students needed no clarification. Our school is wildly diverse, but that’s never stopped us from openly celebrating Christmas. The kids sell mistletoe messages and Christmas wreaths through December.
I regret not capturing a picture of the tree at school, completely decorated. I’ve learned that it made any number of appearances on Snapchat and Instagram, as my students bragged about their Chrismassy room.
My family of origin has always centered celebration on Christmas Eve. For 45 years, December 24th means cheese, beef, and occasionally chocolate fondue. When we were kids, we’d then go to bed and have Christmas in the morning. But once we hit our teens and late 20s, we’d just open presents Christmas Eve so we could sleep in. As we grew up and moved out, we turned Christmas Day into family unit, keeping Christmas Eve for fondue with everyone.
My ex and I did Christmas big. We both loved the holiday, both bought each other lots of gifts, bought other family members multiple presents, shopped together and separately. I love presents. But it wasn’t just the presents. We had a party once, I remember, and always made plans to see friends or do something fun.
We divorced when our son was not quite three. Because of our fondue tradition, my son always had Christmas Eve and morning with me, then went to my ex’s for two or three days. So on Christmas Day, I was alone.
I wasn’t miserable. I still loved the Christmas holiday, even if the 25th was always a bit of a letdown.My son and I would always decorate, get a tree. We’d drive around looking at lights, go to see It’s A Wonderful Life or Wizard of Oz at the revival theater. But after the divorce, I always felt as if I were watching others experience Christmas, rather than experience it myself. A good chunk of my loss was simply the presents. I’m not materialistic the rest of the year, but by god I like people buying me presents at Christmas. However, the larger sense of loss was due to the realization that while my family of origin is big, my own family unit was just two–and when my son was gone, I didn’t really have a family unit at all. Just me.
The post-divorce change in Christmas was as nothing compared to its utter disappearance after my son finished high school. Before Faisal dragged that little scrubby pine into my room, I hadn’t put up a tree since 2005. My son would still come to fondue, we’d still have Christmas morning, but without him around during the lead-in, what was the point?
That amputated Christmas threatened to disappear entirely once he moved three states away with his girlfriend and eventual wife. I once had fond notions of visiting for Christmas and opening presents with my grandkids, but my ex and I have spent no small amount of time commiserating with each other about the truth of the maxim “A son is a son till he takes a wife, a daughter’s a daughter the rest of her life”. I am truthfully not bitter about this, although I would certainly have it otherwise. My son has a woman he adores, an excellent job he enjoys, two beautiful, loving children , a mortgage, and a marriage certificate (acquired in that order). I have done my job well. Peace.
My son’s absence forced me to stare down a (hopefully very long) telescope looking towards old age wondering was this it? I’m going to be someone who doesn’t do Christmas? Will I just start peeling away holidays as I have fewer people to celebrate with? I’m still blessed with both parents and family of origin nearby, but the disintegration of my Christmas Day–now getting perilously near why-bother status–made me realize that I had to change my mindset and perhaps my practice as I move towards a time when family will be fewer and farther away.
So for the past few years, I’ve made a point to experience Christmas as a family unit of one. A married couple I’m close to often invites me over for dinner, where I have a wonderful time even though, god help me, she’s a terrible cook. I can dress up a bit, talk to people, drink wine, and mark the year’s passing. Sometimes I’ll go see the holiday film at the revival theater. I often go to a Starbucks, write, talk to people at the store or on the street, seek out a neighbor to chat.
I resumed putting up outdoor lights three years ago, slowly finding uses for the big pile of lights I’d acquired earlier, and then actually buying more. I love Christmas lights so much. And they’re outdoors, so it felt more like contributing to neighborhood spirit, rather than decorating an empty nest. For three years now, coming home and seeing the house all lit up has been most cheering.
While I expected my new “experience” of Christmas to be limited to outside lights and activities, Faisal and my students have reminded me of all the happy ornaments locked away in my garage, sitting there unused and unenjoyed. I have treasured the shared cheer of my classroom tree. If I ended my Christmas tree practice because there was no one to share it with, well, then, why not continue to have a tree at school for the season? So I will. When I told my students, they applauded.
I wonder if Julia Ioffe can possibly conceive of a Muslim Palestinian American begging for a free tree, lugging it into his most familiar teacher’s room, simply because he wants to be a part of one of the best holidays ever created. Would she demand that he, too, see Christmas entirely in terms of Christ? Could she not see it as assimilation of the best sort, appreciation for what American culture has to offer?
I received an additional gift of recognition, one that involves the second best Christmas Carol. The finest is, of course, the Alistair Sim version, which you should run out and see right away, before Christmas season officially ends. But Patrick Stewart’s version holds its own very well.
One scene in particular has always resonated with me, and only recently have I understood why. I’ll try to show it with pictures, but the difference is easier to see in action. Here’s Ebenezer before his transformation, sitting in front of his fire:
His body language is all crunched up, his face is tense (granted, Marley’s said hello). Here he is after the three ghosts have visited:
He’s alone both times. But in the second, he’s not eating dinner, shoveling it down as a utilitarian act, scrunched and sullen. He’s just sitting, enjoying the fire, with a nice drink. He’s experiencing Christmas, alone and happy.
I wasn’t Scrooge before, or now. I’m just an introvert who is perfectly content to be alone most of the time, but didn’t know how to celebrate Christmas if I wasn’t part of a big family unit. I faked it–and faked it well–for a long time, but I’m learning how to keep the day in the spirit I’d like.
Faisal’s determined desire for a Christmas tree, and my students’ happy participation in creating one, had one more surprise in store for me. When school ended for the year, I carefully took off all the ornaments, wrapped them up and put them back in the box. Next was the lights..but I stopped. I’d planned to put the tree in the dumpster but instead wrapped up the cords and carried the whole tree, lights and all, to the front seat of my car. I only felt a little bit silly.
I’m looking at it now, shining brightly in the front window. Maybe next year I’ll have two trees–one for school, one for home.
This year my friends had to delay their Christmas dinner until Thursday. So my brother and I ate standing rib roast, which cooked to rare perfection, and I made lemon meringue pie for dessert. I’ll be rewarding myself with a hot toddy (Makers Mark) when I finish this.
I always give thanks for my students, past and present, and am grateful I’ve got many more students to enjoy in years to come. But this year, to students present, I thank you all for showing me how to bring back one more piece of my favorite holiday.