I have a really hard time saying “Merry Christmas” back to people. I’m stubborn and have a hard time doing anything that most people do without having my own deep understanding and reasoning of it. Holidays are hard because whatever meaning they might have is undermined by the way our capitalist system exploits them. And then there is the gruesome history of genocide and colonization that gets glossed over with gravy, sweetened with pie.
I was born to Cambodian refugees in the United States. They tried to emulate the festivities that I was exposed to by my education, but there was always an undercurrent (and overcurrent) that I was still a kohn Khmer, their child, not American.
By junior high, I had moved past the excitement of prospective presents and began to wonder at the pressure I felt to participate in a holiday that did not feel authentic to me. Not because I was Khmer, or Asian, but because my family wasn’t Christian and before living in the United States, they never celebrated it. And so while I witnessed plenty of sweet ideas about secular Christmas being a time to encourage generosity and giving and being with people you car about, I also came to resent the way it felt compulsory, and the sense of impending judgement that I felt around holiday time in regards to cards and gifts. Why should I try to participate in a holiday that wasn’t really mine?
And then there was the way that capitalism exploits the goodwill of the holiday, making parents feel like they were not good enough if they did not get their children whatever special toy was coming out that season, or if they did not get everything on the wish list. There was also pressure at school, with Secret Santa, and the economic anxieties I felt as a kid from a working class family. I take responsibility for my own anxieties around being “good enough,” but I don’t feel the need to get over them for the sake of participating in a holiday that feels like it has nothing to do with me.
It would be different if Christmas felt like a tradition fully embraced rather than one tentatively attempted by my nuclear family. I always had this sense of worry. That’s the legacy of being a refugee, of being working class– constant worrying about having enough.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of joy my family’s adaptations of American holidays– the whole extended family getting together, a laid-back affair with a lot of food, circles of blackjack or baccarat with cold hard cash, basketball on TV (I wrote a poem about this 4 years ago). Family always included grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews.
Further, the reason my family gets together during these holidays is not because we believe in them, but because that’s what they have time off. Secular Christmas exists because our economic system demands that people work all the time, no matter their religious beliefs or holidays, and they have time off when the dominant culture decides it is appropriate. So people get used to spending time together at a certain time of the year. We get used to not being able to spend time together when we want or need to.
Christmas reminds me that the other 50 or so weeks of the year, my mom has to have her nose at the grindstone. During Lunar New Year, during Khmer New Year, on the anniversary of her mother’s death. And further, perhaps, it also brings up shame because somewhere deep down I wish I were the kind of daughter who earned enough money for her mother to stop working by now.
Many, if not most, of my relatives and friends celebrate Christmas in some way. Everyone finds a way to celebrate it that feels good to them. I’m not against that happening for me. But I’m also not waiting for it to happen to me. Christmas doesn’t feel like mine, and it doesn’t have to.
Maybe next year, though, I’ll send out cards with a message like this on them.