For months, the indicators of Christmas have descended on us silently, like snow. They are everywhere now: the festive cost-of-living crisis-themed adverts, the green and pink and silver-coloured chintz, the white-trimmed red illusions of Santa Claus, and roadside stalls selling “real Christmas trees”. And this year, for the first time since the pandemic, it feels like Christmas is back to normal.
For most, the growing trickle of signifiers carries obvious, personal associations – of family, arguments and gifts. But for some of us, those who don’t celebrate Christmas, this time of year is defined by the space around – or between – what the majority of the nation is busy with.
My parents moved to England from Israel in 1987. I was five. Secular Israeli Jews don’t tend to celebrate Christmas, and, as the years went by, my resolutely Israeli parents did not adopt this custom of our new home. In the US, there is a Jewish tradition of going to eat Chinese food at Christmas, in lieu of the festivities of the majority. For my family here in England there was no Christmas, and no other ritual filled the gap. For years there was only ourselves, outsiders marooned at home or on a trip somewhere, not celebrating but forced together by circumstance.
I can trace the development of my Yuletides through three phases, roughly mirroring childhood, youth and adult life. As a child, Christmases were an articulation of exclusion. Friends were busy with their families; no buses or Tubes running on Christmas Day; everything closed. There was isolation and boredom, but comfort too. At home, we watched films on TV, the Eastenders special; we ate together, of course, but not in celebration – an imprint in negative of Christmas Day.
The festivities grew familiar by proxy, what people ate, what they did. One year, when we were very young, my sister and I wanted to do it too. We decorated the ladder of our bunk bed like it was a tree, with baubles made of paper. We each wrapped a present for the other, wanting to know how it would feel to be like everyone else.
Christmas shifted into a new phase when I was a teenager, exclusion subverted into escapism and romance. One year, after her Christmas dinner was over, my girlfriend walked the two or so hours to my house, bearing leftover turkey and red cabbage wrapped in foil. It was cold outside and this was the grandest gesture of love.
Another year, long before the ubiquity of social media and smartphones, my boyfriend and I managed to track down the Brazilians we had met in Paris on a recent trip. Conscious of how dead London is on Christmas Day, of how bored they were sure to be, we picked them up from their hostel in Kings Cross and drove them across the river to a party. They couldn’t believe their luck, stranded in south London with other fugitives from Christmas until the early hours.
A few years after that, my soon-to-be new boyfriend and I walked through London taking pictures and falling in love. We passed through the silent bits, the quiet little houses where people celebrated with family and friends, to the centre where tourists hunted ways to pass the time.
My first invitation to spend a real Christmas with a real family was when I lived in Mexico. Christmas there was very different to any English celebration I had ever fantasised about attending. Dinner was on Christmas Eve and went on until late. They ate shrimp with chocolate mole sauce and Norwegian cod and olives. There was a ritual of going out into the street and knocking on the gate to ask for shelter, like Mary and Joseph.
Later, when I lived in Israel, the opposite happened: I was part of a majority that didn’t celebrate Christmas. When it was Passover or Jewish New Year, everyone knew about it. But Christmas in much of Israel is a normal day, a nothing, and I missed it. Rima, a Christian, lived with me in Tel Aviv for a time. It’s terrible, she told us, how nobody in Israel knows when it is Christmas, that it is such a special day to us. I told her that I knew exactly what she meant.
A few years after that, when my partner and I had moved back to London, we spent our first Christmas Day walking from our flat in Finsbury Park to Holborn and back again. I was about three months pregnant, the weight of my belly just starting to intrude. Tired and famished, we spent too much money in a Lebanese restaurant that mercifully was open. One of the waiters was a Palestinian man we had met on a bus some months earlier, and we still joke that this was our Christmas miracle.
The third and as-yet final phase of Christmases began four years ago, after my first daughter was born. That December, we made a Jewish sabbath stew, hamin, for lunch on Christmas Day, and it became a tradition. My brother makes the dessert. One time it was sticky toffee pudding, another chocolate Guinness cake.
But two years ago, we succumbed a bit more directly to the festivities. That Christmas morning my eldest daughter woke to presents in a stocking she was convinced had come from Father Christmas. And so it happened that, so many years after immigrating to England, I started to adopt a little of this custom of the country I have long called home. We will do it again this year, and when my daughter insists the gifts really are from Santa Claus, that he is real, we will let her believe it.