This holiday season I will be surrounded by people who love me and who I love. I will be given gifts and give gifts. I will feel grateful for everything that I am experiencing. I will drink and eat too much and I will laugh more than I normally do. I will engage in superficial conversation and talk to people that I would be happy never having to talk to again. I will give a lot of hugs. I will try and open my heart, have no judgement and relax into the Christmas celebration. My wife, whom I love more than anything in this universe, will tell me to smile more and she will probably take a beer out of my hand and tell me that I have had enough. I will have fun. I will try to appear like a confident and happy guy. However, despite all of this, one thing that no one will notice about me this Christmas day is that even though I will be attending a party filled with friends and strangers- I will be in the loneliest place on earth.
If you want to know where the loneliest place on earth is, find a Jew on Christmas day and then there you are (if you find this Jew you would be doing him or her a great favor by giving them a hug and telling them that you love them even though they will pretend everything is fine). Being Jewish at this time of year kind of feels like attending a party in where you are not really sure if you were invited. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that being Jewish at this time of year is like traveling in a foreign country. When in a foreign country you can enjoy the sights, sounds, the language, the food and everything else that makes up the experience of being in a foreign place but you can not escape from the deep loneliness that you feel as a result of no longer being in familiar territory. There is a photograph that I always like to look at when I use the urinal at one of my favorite pubs. It is a picture of an eastern European man holding up a big sign in a crowd of people. There is a sad smile on the mans face and his eyes are wide open in anticipation. His face is the face of loneliness. His sign reads: “Waiting For My People.” This is how I feel on Christmas day.
However are not my people the family and friends that I will happily be surrounded by on Christmas day? I love these people and even though they are my wife’s family they are my family. I feel more accepted and supported by my wife’s parents than I ever have by my own parents. The love that my wife gives me is so strong that I literally can feel it penetrating my skin. So with all this love, support, celebration, gratitude and gift giving why the long face?
Maybe it stems from growing up as a Jew in America. Christmas day was always the elephant in the room. I had to pretend that it was not there. No one really talked about it. While all the other families that I lived around decorated their homes with lights, Christmas trees and scarey blow up Santa Clauses my house remained dark. I remember being a kid and feeling that I was being left out of something important that was going on. On television there would be Christmas shows, at school there would be Christmas parties, all over my neighborhood there would be Christmas celebrations and I was stuck in the middle of it all, kept arms length from all the festivities. I felt like my parents were sheltering me from a potential threat. My father always expressed a certain kind of disapproval towards all the “Christmas crap.” Over time there was this feeling of isolation that developed in me as a result of not not getting to participate in the Christmas celebration festivities. By the time I was in college, I got used to spending Christmas eve and Christmas day alone. I got used to wondering the streets on Christmas eve and noticing that everything was closed (except Chinese food restaurants). I got used to feeling like I was in the loneliest place on earth.
But maybe this is not quit it. The Christmas season always makes me unpleasantly aware of just how Christian of a country I am living in. During Hanukkah which ends a week or so before Christmas I will see very few signs of the holiday in my culture. Maybe a star of David being sold in a boutique gift shop or Hanukkah candles for sale at Target. Other than this there are no gratuitous displays of the Jewish holiday anywhere. This can make a Jew think that they are a member of a secret cult. That their holiday is somehow hidden away, deviant and maybe even unimportant compared to the significant place Christmas holds in people’s hearts. I can not tell you the last time that I celebrated Hanukkah with my sister, my parents, friends and my extended family all together. Hanukkah for me has become a holiday that is more apart of my past than it is apart of my future and maybe on Christmas day when I am with my wife and her family it is hard to forget what is missing.
Loneliness is a strange thing. You can be lonely in a huge crowd, you can be lonely when you are surrounded by people who love you, you can be lonely when you are lying in bed at night with someone you love. Loneliness is not always a rational thing. It is an emotion that begs for attention and arises in response to something that you are feeling or thinking. We can not always control what we feel and think, sometimes feelings and thoughts just happen in relation to something we smelled, ate, drank, noticed or heard. Just as we do not always know why we caught a cold, we do not always know why we feel lonely. It is just there. This is what happens to me on Christmas day. There is this deep emotion that settles in my bones in response to a certain feeling. I try and push it away and keep a smile on my face. I drink beer and eat. I am happy for my wife who loves this time of year and I am happy that I get to be apart of the festivities. I try and have fun. But still I will feel like something is missing. Still I will feel like I am in the loneliest place on earth. Still I will release a sigh of great relief when all the Christmas lights start to come down.