My Expat Christmas

Star of David Wreath, December 2013.

People mistake my bitterness this time of year for hating Christmas. Actually, I’m fine with it. I just hate how it gets observed. And I especially hate being around American expats, in Yemen, on Christmas. Expats often feel that they live in circumstances which are hostile to them. Sometimes the circumstances are actually hostile, and other times, it is only perceived as such because it is so different. Regardless, expats often fall back on what they know, and usually kick attitudes from their upbringing into overdrive as a culturally reactive exercise.

This causes Christmas to be even more annoying here in Sana’a, than it is in the United States. Everything just gets that much more obnoxious. On the bright side, this means that I’m more able to explore why Christmas bothers me back at home, in the US, simply because the dynamics are kicked into excess. When you remember this augmentation, it isn’t surprising that one of the expat Christmas celebrations has been code-named, “Operation Christmas Jihad.” And naturally, if I say anything, I’m going to get blasted for “not having the Christmas spirit.”

When I was asked if I wanted to celebrate the holiday, or if I wanted to do a gift exchange, and I said “no,” I was met with a reply of “Fuck you, why not? It’s Christmas.” Does it matter? Christmas makes me uncomfortable. Why should I have to do things for it just because it means something to other people? It doesn’t mean anything to me, and more importantly, I don’t want it to. Why should I have to celebrate Christmas just because it is culturally important to someone else?

It’s almost impossible to explain this fact to people who have never had this type of cultural pressure. I have found that American Jews are best able to understand what I mean. Every time Christmas rolls around, we have to deal with a bevy of aggressively Protestant Americans who demand that we understand the glory that is this holiday. They don’t care to understand that they’re being intolerant. They’ll go on and on about how they mean well, because that places the impetus on us to ignore that they’re being rude and inconsiderate.

The most conservative of them will even watch FOX News segments about the War on Christmas, while the liberals will insist on saying “Happy Holidays” to be inclusive (I don’t want to hear this PC nonsense either, partially because my cultural celebrations operate by a lunar calendar, so it’s only rarely applicable.)

But probably the most annoying thing of all is when people counter our refusal to celebrate with a claim “But it’s not even really a religious holiday!” Sure, people rarely engage in ritual anymore. But that claim makes very little sense to me. Just because Christmas has been secularized in the bosom of consumerism, it is suddenly divorced from everything that made it religious? Nearly everything that people see as traditional about Christmas was gleaned from European religious conventions. Christmas trees, stockings, woolen sweaters, eggnog, all of it. That means that even if you don’t celebrate Christmas from a religious standpoint, the Protestant aesthetic is still overwhelming. Just because you’re a secular WASP, who may not even believe in God, doesn’t mean that Christianity isn’t all over this holiday. You probably just don’t link the two.

I have to emphasize that I don’t hate the Christmas spirit. That humanism means that Christmas can be a very magical time of year. My Jewish friends would probably say variations of the same thing. I personally love how Christmas is a preview of how culturally Christian areas would operate if everyone was a bit more generous: people opening their homes to one another, and contributing to their societies for no other reason than, “It’s Christmas!” If you’re celebrating it this year, switch every instance of that statement with “Because it’s the right thing to do,” and you’ll understand why I think the holiday is cool.

But I’m sick of the aggressive, WASP bullshit that I have to deal with every time the end of December forces itself into my life. American Jews have a tradition where they eat Chinese food on Christmas. People say that it’s because Chinese restaurants are the only places that are open. But it’s really because they’re looking for a refuge from a Christian holiday. What better a place to feel comfortable about being different, than consuming foreign food, served by another minority?

There’s a Korean restaurant in downtown Sana’a, which isn’t Chinese. But I’ll still be eating my Christmas dinner there, feeling content that my Jewish friends are doing the same in America.


Lead photograph courtesy of  Tony Alter. Published under a Creative Commons License.

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