Just a few weeks ago, I celebrated Christmas for the first time. Ever.
All my life, there were no stockings hung by the chimney with care. (And I grew up in a house with a real, live working chimney!) No carefully wrapped gifts. No smell of pine needles and gingerbread houses. No carefully decorated Christmas tree with garland, candy canes and ornaments handed down through generations. None of it.
My parents joined the Nation of Islam in the early ’70s, and while they became disillusioned relatively early on and eventually left, two of the major traditions remained in our household.
The first nonnegotiable: No pork (I finally caved as an adult, and now bacon is everything).
The second nonnegotiable: No Christmas.
I will not front. I’ve always wanted to celebrate Christmas. When I was a little girl, I told my parents that I understood and it didn’t bother me that my friends were rolling in swag through the new year. But in reality, it just didn’t seem fair.
I was a good kid. For real. Not just when the Christmas countdown started. But the neighborhood kids could act a hot mess all year, then write a list (!!!) of what they wanted and it would come—all of it! If I could have flown to Chicago to have a little chat with Louis Farrakhan, I would have. Why couldn’t young Muslims have some kind of ... mini-Elijah Muhammad or something to deliver gifts on a prayer rug?
As I got older, sometimes I would write out lists of things I would get for people if I celebrated Christmas. And a list of things I wanted as well (I know how pathetic this sounds). Over the years, I did occasionally have to buy some presents. It might be grab bag stuff for work or my kids’ teachers and maybe something for my great-aunt Mildred who never understood why I didn’t have any Christmas spirit. But that wasn’t truly celebrating.
When I had a household of my own, we began attending parties on Christmas Day with our Christian sides of the extended family tree. Over time, we began giving our daughters a gift or two to open at the party. Still no tree. No hot chocolate, no footie pajamas or stringing popcorn. No chestnuts roasting on an open fire. I know it’s pretty lame that I only wanted to celebrate the warm and fuzzy gift-giving part of Christmas, but the feeling remained.
And then 2017 came.
Without going into much detail (my marriage is transitioning to a nonmarriage! I just moved into my own place! I am a grown-ass divorcee!), I’m in a different space in my life. And I decided this year—it would be ALL about St. Nick up in this piece.
I will not make any apologies. I am 40-plus. Everybody and their mama already got a chance to have Jack Frost nipping at their nose. It’s my time to catch up.
So, first I made THE best Christmas-themed playlist ever. From Donny Hathaway to the Jackson Five—and of course Mariah Carey and the best Christmas song of all time (that’s Jesus, What a Wonderful Child, not All I Want for Christmas Is You—trust me).
Then it was time to map out a tree strategy. This was all new to me. I swear I was only mildly aware that trees come in real, prelit-fake and plain-fake varieties. And trees are ... trees. They need care. They need daily watering! Why didn’t anyone tell me how expensive this process would be? I decided to bring Christmas to New Bae’s house, since I have a wild and crazy puppy at my place.
He just shook his head when he noticed that I had no idea what I was doing and how involved it was. He got me a (real!) tree, set it up in his living room and then walked away, leaving me to figure it out.
Yo, you have to get a tree, a base, a skirt, bulbs, lights, ornaments, candy canes, garland and tinsel. I couldn’t even find a star for less than $20! And the Christmas Eve in my dreams includes footie pajamas, gingerbread-house kits, personalized Santa hats and more. This Jesus person requires a lot for his birthday party.
Now, picking out gifts for friends, my New Bae (and, ahem, ex-bae) and the kids in my life has been the best part. Thinking about a loved one, giving some thought to that person’s personality, having that aha moment, buying the perfect present and then hiding it until gift-wrapping time? That was the best thing ever, y’all! Why didn’t anyone tell me that buying gifts for people was so fulfilling?
Example: Many years ago, one of my besties inherited a special cup-and-saucer set from her grandmother. They were all broken during a move, and for years she has had only one cup and saucer left. She looked for them over time but never found them. Well, guess who found a tiny distributor who makes that set?! It’s now wrapped in personalized gift wrap, and I watched YouTube to learn how to make a traditional red-ribbon bow.
Don’t judge me.
I’m not sure why buying gifts for Christmas is more satisfying than buying birthday, wedding or graduation gifts. Maybe because during Christmas, more folks are shopping at the same time, so it feels more festive? Or maybe because gifts for other occasions feel more obligational than joyful? I’m big on gift cards and cash for graduation and weddings, but I wouldn’t dare buy a gift card for anyone on my first Christmas!
Now, I will say this: I would NOT have enjoyed this process if I couldn’t do this all online. I can’t even fathom making a list, checking it twice and then going to the mall to shop. I did it all from my phone. Amazon Prime two-day delivery for the win.
I originally set a cap of $20 for each gift. That went out the window almost immediately. But I found another way to keep my spending in check: For every gift I purchased, I used that same amount to donate to a worthy organization. Blew my budget, but made me feel slightly better about it.
New Bae celebrated Christmas his entire life. Coming from a religious, churchgoing family, he told me that as a kid, when he woke up on Christmas morning, he would say, “Happy birthday, Jesus!”
Like many black men during the “Fight the Power” era, he moved away from organized religion and didn’t celebrate for years. Eventually he was straight up embarrassed that he wished Jesus a happy birthday each year. I reassured him that he can be woke and still have a nonreligious Christmas tree.
(I’m actually not sure if that’s true. Is this offensive to Christian faithfuls? I really don’t know.)
I pulled him back into his childhood memories and eventually he came around. When he saw the tree we decorated, the slight smile told me I had him.
A few days later he said to me, “If you’re going to pull me back into this, there’s something we need to do. We are all going to Rockefeller Center to see the tree. We taking pictures and alladat.”
And to that I said, “Happy birthday, Jesus!”