My daughters and I did something a bit unusual for us yesterday. For the first time in my life and henceforth theirs, we did not celebrate Christmas Eve. When I was married, our family was interfaith in terms of family tradition, and my family of origin defines the word complex in terms of faith traditions. This year, we celebrated Hanukkah, but it wasn’t quite that easy. I grew up amongst Scandinavians. Dyed in the wool Scandinavians. For my family, Christmas is all about the traditions. The food. The holiday decor. The annual trek to Ingebretsen’s for the food. The music. It was never about the gifts. It was an excuse to be Swedish or Norwegian. I mean, to really be Swedish or Norwegian.
I have always associated Christmas with Scandinavia. With my grandparents. With their home cultures. And with very cold weather. It has never felt like a spiritual tradition to me for this reason, I suspect.
So, yesterday, Christmas Eve, the evening upon which all good Scandis celebrate Christmas, I did not. This year, my daughters and I re-examined our family traditions. Going forward, what do we want to keep, and what do we want to leave behind as we re-create our family?
A divorce changes everything. In our case, it changed it for the better, but the dynamic in our home is still vastly different now. We can practice Judaism openly without fear of reprisal from family members. We do not have to keep anything for the sake of keeping it just to appease–to keep a false peace. We can be deliberate about our practices, and that freedom to choose feels like a privilege.
So, what did we do? This might sound funny, but…we watched Christmas movies all day. We stayed in our pajamas and chose movies that we liked or remembered liking. “White Christmas” was the front runner. I made the traditional cookies that my Great Aunt Evelyn always made during the holidays while we lounged and reminisced. The last movie of the night was Nancy Meyers’ “The Holiday”. I saw this movie in the cinema in 2006 which blows my mind because I so clearly remember it. The part that hit a nerve in me when I saw it then and nearly ran me over last night was Kate Winslet’s monologue:
“What I am trying to say is I understand feeling as small and as insignificant as humanly possible. And how it can actually ache in places that you didn’t know you had inside you. And it doesn’t matter how many new hair cuts you get, or gyms you join, or how many glasses of Chardonnay you drink with your girlfriends. You still go to bed every night going over every detail and wonder what you did wrong or how you could have misunderstood. And how in the hell for that brief moment you could think that you were that happy. And sometimes you can even convince yourself that he’ll see the light and show up at your door.
And after all that, however long all that may be, you’ll go somewhere new, and you’ll meet people who make you feel worthwhile again, and little pieces of your soul will finally come back. And all that fuzzy stuff, those years of your life that you wasted, that will eventually begin to fade.”
In 2006, as I sat in the dark of the theatre watching Winslet so brilliantly speak out these words, I ached inside. I knew that something was terribly wrong in my life then. I knew that I was diminishing. I was not on the right path. I wasn’t playing the right part. The character of Arthur Abbott, played by Eli Wallach, remarks to Iris, Winslet’s character, during their first dinner together why she is miserable in her life:
Arthur Abbott: He let you go. This is not a hard one to figure out. Iris, in the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you are behaving like the best friend.
Iris: You’re so right. You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life, for god’s sake! Arthur, I’ve been going to a therapist for three years, and she’s never explained anything to me that well. That was brilliant. Brutal, but brilliant.
That is what struck me last night eleven years after I’d seen this movie for the first time. You know, if I could sum up why we go to therapy, it would be Arthur Abbott’s remarks–to learn to play the leading role in our own lives. Not a supporting role to someone trying to usurp that role in our lives. To be the star of our own story. It isn’t an elegant process that happens in two weeks as it does in “The Holiday”, but it can happen.
So, that is what I would wish for all of you as 2017 comes to a close. I wish for all of us that we would become the leading men and women of our lives–the stars of our stories. The stories might be adventure, fantasy, romantic comedy, drama, slapstick, epic, or sitcom. It’s my guess that they will be all of the above.
May it be a life worth living and story worth telling in the end.
Shalom and keep going.
And Merry Christmas, everyone!