The start of December brings back memories of all the years I went above and beyond to celebrate Christmas as if it were the key to feeling like I truly belonged in America. It also reminds me of the moment when my kids thankfully shattered that illusion.
In 1979, when I was 8, my family left Iran because of the revolution, and I ended up rotating through various schools in France, England and Canada, always walking different halls with the same feeling: out of place, confused, desperate for connection. At home, I’d hide in my room from the sound of my stressed-out parents fighting. At 14, I was glad to get away when they suggested I go off to an all-girls Catholic boarding school in Monterey, California.
It would be the first time that my fascination with Christmas really took root. Throughout the decades, I’d cling to winter wonderlands I saw on television and the feeling of my first Christmas at my Catholic school. For many immigrant kids like me, the holiday often feels like a far-off magical thing that can make our otherness go away if we immerse ourselves in it. But what I discovered was no amount of Christmas sparkle could make this feeling disappear.
During my first year at the boarding school, the decorations started going up in early December. There were crimson poinsettias and glittering trees in the dorms and fresh wreaths throughout the school. We lit candles, held hands and sang “Oh Holy Night” and “Joy to the World” in goosebump-inducing harmony, our voices reverberating around the stained-glass-filled chapel. With Christmas songs continually playing in my room, I memorized the sweet words and catchy melodies, and watched holiday movies one after another. My favorite was “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby, which I still watch to this day. It had everything I associated with Christmas, this holiday I’d quickly fallen in love with: community, friendship, love, belonging and the best songs ever written.
Up until this moment, all the Christmases I could remember were spent with my secular family, only half-heartedly celebrating the holiday with an ordinary tree and some presents, but after the magic of boarding school, our Christmas felt like a pale imitation. I desperately craved the Hallmark version where I’d bake gingerbread cookies with my mom, sing the classic songs together as a family and have hot cocoa by a roaring fire with red felt stockings embroidered with our names. But these traditions were not ours.
During those teen years, our home was a far cry from the harmonious family I yearned for. My mother and I were in an almost constant state of battle. She thought the ideal Iranian woman should be modest, proper and slender. But I was none of those things. Instead, I was bold, loud, rambunctious and always ready to fight for what I thought was unjust in my world. These qualities felt wrong in my house but right in my American life. Yet another reason I wanted everything my new country had to offer, including its joyful Christmas spirit.
Decades later, during the first Christmas with my Midwestern husband’s family, I finally got to experience a version of the holiday I had fantasized about growing up. A house filled with every decoration you can imagine, the smell of freshly baked treats, and holiday songs playing in the background as my in-laws sat with piping hot mugs of hot chocolate by a fire, where our stuffed embroidered stockings were hanging, including mine, the latest addition.
So, when I became a mother, I knew I had to give this Christmas fantasy to my children. I baked and iced dozens of cookies shaped like Christmas trees, Santa hats and snowflakes, and I decorated every corner of the house with wreaths and bows and cheesy holiday signs — Santa this way! — and dressed the tree from top to bottom with ornaments. But somehow it didn’t feel right — it felt like I was pretending, donning some costume instead of something authentically my own.
Year after year, I’d drive my husband and kids crazy with demands of matching holiday pajamas, hollering at everyone to get into the right poses and smiles for the Christmas card, and blasting old-timey music while criticizing everyone’s ornament placement. “You’re bunching them up! Let me do it!” I’d yell. It was all in an effort to bring to life a Hallmark illusion.
Then a few years ago, as we were playing Monopoly — another tradition I’d insisted upon because I played it as a teen and thought of it as quintessentially American — my preteen boys stopped the game. They both said that they were sick of these forced family traditions. They told me that every year I would promise not to micromanage the holiday, including our game night, but I still did it, and it wasn’t fun for them anymore. After their declaration, they darted off to their rooms. That night, I sat crying on the living room floor.
“I’m failing,” I told my husband. “I can’t make the perfect Christmases your mom made for you. Like we should have.”
As he put his arms around my shoulders, he said,“What are you talking about? I didn’t have perfect Christmases. We had fights and issues like everyone else. We don’t need all this stuff.”
I thought the better I made Christmas, the more American I would feel.
Looking at my husband’s tired eyes, our crooked tree and our half-eaten gingerbread house, I realized what I was striving for didn’t exist. It was the dream of a lonely immigrant kid who desperately wanted to belong to something. But now I didn’t need it anymore to feel like I was enough — enough of an American, of a wife, of a mother. The next day, I released my family from the pressure of having to make the right holiday memories. No more posing for pictures, mandatory game nights or matching sweaters. We were all freed from my holiday mania and allowed to enjoy a messy relaxing vacation together.
Christmas, especially for secular or non-Christian people, can feel like an out-of-reach magical thing, an all-encompassing happiness machine. So, it’s no surprise that many of us desperately want to be part of it. We think if we enter its fairy-tale-like wonder, we’ll fully belong to our country’s primary holiday custom. But creating a perfect Christmas — a manufactured idea tied to our national identity through movies and TV— will not make you belong more or less to America.
When we stop chasing that false identity and accept that it’s OK to be an “other,” that, in fact, we are a country of others, that’s when we can appreciate our place in this multicultural nation and enjoy imperfect holidays with our families.
I still love Christmas and all its warm, wonderful movie-like feelings, but now I know I don’t have to construct an imaginary version of it for me to feel American. I, and every other secular, non-Christian American belong to this country with or without filling our homes with over-the-top decorations or tormenting our families into taking the perfect Christmas selfie.