The word holiday comes from the Old English word hāligdæg, which means holy day. Given the origins of the word, it is not especially surprising that religious tensions often surface during the holiday season. After all, most religions have holy days, and many of these holy days fall around the December solstice. During this year’s holiday season, however, we are experiencing a troubling uptick in religious tensions in part because of global events and in part because of an overall increase in divisive discourse in our society. Against this backdrop, I am reminded of how religious differences influenced my family’s celebrations of the holiday season during my childhood days. In the case of my family, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol served as a bridge that enabled our family to come together for the holidays.
My mother came from a long line of Swedish Lutherans who always celebrated Christmas. When my mother was just a little girl, she helped her mother prepare for the family Christmas activities. Her mother died when Mom was still a child, but Mom had already accumulated a treasure trove of Christmas memories, many of them involving her mother. My father came from an equally long line of Polish Jews who never celebrated Christmas. For the most part, the differences in my parents’ religious backgrounds were manageable largely because both of them had turned away from organized religion during their teenage years, but these differences occasionally flared up.
Not long after my parents moved into their first apartment in the early 1950s, the differences in their religious backgrounds surfaced when Christmas season arrived. My mother assumed that they would put up a Christmas tree, but my father felt reluctant to buy one. He had always associated Christmas trees with Christians, and he wasn’t a Christian. My mother no longer thought of herself as a Lutheran, but she still loved Christmas and she very much wanted a Christmas tree.
Just before Christmas, my father had a change of heart. He secretly bought a tree and some inexpensive decorations and began setting it up while my mother was away from their Greenwich Village apartment. That same afternoon, my mother purchased another tree and talked a neighbor into helping her carry it to their apartment. She walked in and was startled to see my father decorating a Christmas tree. That marked the beginning of my parents’ efforts to create their own holiday traditions.
For my mother, Christmas presented an opportunity to celebrate her Swedish heritage. My brother, sister, and I wholeheartedly joined in the Swedish merriment. We baked Swedish Christmas cookies, listened to Swedish Christmas music, and put Swedish decorations on our two Christmas trees, one of which was about fourteen feet high. In fact, we called the smaller one our Swedish tree, and that tree always featured the handmade, heart-shaped paper baskets that my mother had kept from her childhood. We ate Swedish pancakes, and on Christmas Eve we ate a Swedish fish dish called lutfisk. Actually, my brother and I usually ate steak since we did not care for the lutfisk, but my mother prepared lutfisk anyway.
My father half heartedly went along with our Swedish Christmas doings, but he must have felt a bit like the odd man out. Looking back on my childhood, I now understand that my father’s Jewish background made it difficult for him to relate to my mother’s exuberant Christmas spirit. Eventually, however, he found a way to make his own contribution to our family’s holiday traditions.
Throughout my childhood, my father read aloud to my brother, sister and me nearly every night after we finished our homework. We had no television, so listening to Dad read aloud was our main form of evening entertainment. One of my father’s favorite authors was Charles Dickens, and he read to us a number of Dickens’s novels. One Christmas Eve, he took Dickens’s A Christmas Carol off the shelf and read the entire story to us. Usually, Mom didn’t listen to Dad read, but that night she joined us in the living room.
The reading of A Christmas Carol became an annual ritual. I still cherish the memory of our entire family sitting in the living room gazing at our giant Christmas tree and listening to Dad once again relate the story of Scrooge’s reformation.
A Christmas Carol will always have a special place in my heart, for I know that it was the shared love of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol that helped my family bridge the differences between my parents’ religious backgrounds. Such is the power of stories. I wish everyone in Storied Charlotte a holiday season full of shared stories