My First Christmas

My First Christmas

By Tina Vossugh

How my family chose to join in on the American holiday of Christmas. 

My husband and I are faking Christmas. At least that’s the way it seems to me. I feel like an impostor who has bought a tree and some carefully coordinated ornaments and lights to decorate my home from top to bottom. I figure if Donald Trump can fake it til he makes it, so can we.

You’re probably wondering why someone would go out of their way to do the whole Christmas thing, and then feel awkward or bad about it. I grew up in Kentucky, where Christmas and Christianity are very much intertwined. Out of respect, I never felt I should celebrate a holy day that wasn’t a part of my religious tradition but, deep down inside, I wanted to join in on the fun.

Tina Vossugh (left) wraps Christmas gifts with her  daughter, Lili to prepare for the holidays.
Tina Vossugh (left) wraps Christmas gifts with her daughter, Lili to prepare for the holidays.

I’m an Iranian American Baha’i who arrived in the United States at the tender age of 11 months. Growing up and keeping to my culture and faith, I always felt like an outsider during the holidays, returning to school with nothing to share of my own experience. My husband is from China, where Christmas lights go up in every mall and everyone knows the concept of Santa Claus but nothing of the “Christ” in Christmas.

So why celebrate? We want to join the rest of American society and be a part of something that feels unifying at a time when the world is so disconnected. We also want our child to not feel left out as I did—to get excited about Santa during “the most wonderful time of year.”

In crafting our own Christmas tradition, our focus has been on the season of giving, in respect of the spiritual aspect of the holiday. We are trying to be charitable, to be of service and to remember our fellow man—basic tenets of being a good human being. As a Baha’i, I respect all religious beliefs and explain to my daughter the connection between Christmas and the birth of Christ. I want her to understand the difference between the secular celebration and the religious one.

At first, we didn’t know what we were doing. We fumbled our way through Home Depot’s many Christmas items. We started out with strings of outdoor lights only and decided to forgo buying the nativity scene, the crux of the Christian tradition. We have a wreath on the door and bought our first real Christmas tree, adding ornaments while listening to Pandora’s Christmas station. We’ve made cookies and shared them with friends (and saved some for Santa, of course), sent cards and handed out gifts of appreciation to teachers and caregivers.

We’ve adopted the tradition of exchanging presents as well, trying not to go overboard. Our rule? One meaningful gift for each person. That gift could be a material one or one of service to the receiver. I’ve learned that gifts come in all shapes and sizes. One of the most appreciated gifts I received from a friend was help with the daunting task of cleaning out my garage.

We also love the “Elf on the Shelf” tradition, drawn from the children’s book of that title that recounts the tale of the elves who help Santa manage the naughty-and-nice list. We have an elf-on-the shelf doll that we move around from place to place before Christmas and our daughter believes that the elf is watching her to report back to Santa. Adding that to the Christmas repertoire was a must, given that we could use it to manipulate our kid to be good! I know that sounds bad but isn’t that what it’s for? Reminding our child the importance of being good, honest and doing the right thing helps her learn to be accountable—but all in fun.

Christmas is a part of our American culture that brings together people of all races, religions and creeds. It’s a holiday of joy and happy gatherings, and it’s all around us.

We drive through our neighborhood and see trees shining bright in family rooms as we hear Christmas tunes play on a 24-hour reel on the local easy-listening radio station. We go to the malls, bombarded with sales geared toward the holidays while glowing lights and beautiful decor hang from every wall. We go to work and there are Christmas parties, gift exchanges and desserts galore. It’s truly a beautiful time of year, and I’m glad I’ve joined in, even if I’ve had to fake it to make it.

Tina Vossugh is an assistant director of storytelling at Santa Clara University. She is a Baha’i who believes in the unity of all mankind and the essential oneness of religion. This commentary first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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