By Susan Lesh
When I was growing up, we were caught up in the Christmas craziness. Our holiday was centered in the church, with three Christmas Eve services, which we all participated in. We always bought our Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, before the first service, and it was left untrimmed when we went to bed. We were not allowed downstairs on Christmas Day until 10:00 and we had to dress up in nice clothes to get a picture on the stairs before running to the pile of presents scattered around the living room where the tree was miraculously trimmed and lit. Our presents were not wrapped; we needed to figure out which pile was ours…and we always did! But the whole Santa thing was a lie, and I was determined not to do that to my kids.
When David and I first lived together, the question of a Christmas tree came up. David was raised Jewish. I understand now how laden the Christmas tree is with the overwhelming Christian culture and its ignorance of other cultures. But he loved me and I convinced him to try a tree. We ended up buying a tree and stringing white lights on it, with no other ornaments. Eventually, we developed our own tradition around the tree by buying special ornaments that we thought were cool; it became part of our home’s artwork, just seasonally displayed.
Make your own tradition
When we had kids, the conversation was again filled with questions about how to celebrate. David’s family sent Hanukkah gifts, but he didn’t want to celebrate it. I certainly didn’t want to do the Santa thing, but my family celebrated Christmas and my sister’s kids believed in Santa. We joined the Ethical Culture Society when Ben and Rachel were 6 and 4. Diana Gross and Tracey Kelley were offering a class in traditions and ceremonies. It was pivotal to me, to have those discussions with people who were going through the same kind of feelings and thought processes that I was.
We looked at the traditions we were born into; we talked about how we felt and the things that we liked and the things that we didn’t like. One exercise was to create your own tradition. By that time, I knew that Bergen Ethical had an intergenerational celebration for Winter Solstice. So, I developed a Solstice tradition for our family. We built a “burning fire” out of deadfall in our back yard and used metallic paper for flames, then we jumped over the “bonfire.” We made suns with a black side that turned to a metallic golden side. We cooked “sun” cookies. And we gave each other presents on the day of the winter solstice. We began to say that we celebrated Solstice, which has its own meaning in our family…we created our own traditions.
One of the gifts that I took from Ethical Culture was to be able to look at where I came from, really look and feel, and decide what to keep and what to make my own.
Susan Lesh is president of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.