Monday, December 6, 2010

The Holiday Sweater

Everybody in my extended family has a different religion and a different last name. In many ways our motley crew exemplifies the American melting pot, but in other ways we are as unique as the raw baby cocoanut pies with dehydrated seed crusts my mother makes as a holiday treat. We are rife with divorce, remarriage, step-siblings (who have their own step-siblings), in-laws, half-relations and hyphenated last names.

I was raised every other week between a New Age Jewish mother and a once-upon-a-time Methodist father who were both creative in their religious approach. For every Christmas tree of my youth, there was an equal or better Hanukkah bush. I received gifts on both the eight little nights and the one big day. Mid-December meant fried latkes and gold covered gilt, but also Yule logs, eggnog and fruit cake. As a child, the mish-mashed holidays were separated by whatever distance my parents were living apart at the time. I told my friends that I was “half Jewish,” a segment of the population once rare but now growing by leaps and bounds. Because lately the Chosen Few have chosen to marry around.

I, myself, married a Southern Baptist. Our thrift store menorah is displayed right next to our Dollar Store Nativity Scene. One of our ornaments says “Baby’s First Hanukkah.” We string lights across our roof, but I try to limit the color selection to blue and white. Someday, my blonde, blue-eyed son will just as confused as me, but for now he doesn’t distinguish his gifts from the cardboard box they came in.

Still, no matter how schizophrenic our house looks around the holidays, there is nothing like receiving a Christmas sweater from my mother-in-law to set off the identity crisis I’ve only barely managed to keep at bay. Yes, I quoted the Book of Ruth “For wherever you go, I shall go” passage in a pre-wedding letter to her, but I was referencing the Old Testament. I so badly wanted to be the perfect daughter-in-law that untying the white satin bow atop the red and green plaid paper to discover a delicate black knit sweater tastefully embroidered with a deep red flower caused me actual agony.

My own mother’s gifts have always been wrapped in the story of how cheaply she managed to find them. “What a bargain, this one!.... the best little yard sale… oy, my barter club!” But unlike the teddy-bear-spinning-a-dreidel socks from my mother that scream “ironic-kitsch!” my mother in law’s gift was simply too elegant, too understated, too real for me to consider wearing. I worried. Could wearing a sweater endorsing one religion cancel out the other? Does a proclamation of Christmas across my chest make me less Jewish? And, most importantly, can I don a poinsettia and still consider myself “cool?” To leave the house in my mother-in-laws gift felt like a more serious commitment than actually marrying her son. I thanked her profusely and then took the sweater home to hold hostage in my closet.

Finally, in a holiday tradition I can live with, re-gifting, I found the poinsettia sweater a happy home. I did not reconcile all of my feelings about how best to blend blood with the holidays, but I did answer one question. Am I the kind of person that can pull off a holiday sweater? No, I am not. But I am the kind of person that will warmly embrace you while you wear yours, whatever religion- or lack thereof- is embroidered across the front.

Belle Magazine, Dec-Jan 2011
Image borrowed from


  1. Well said, Valley. I always wondered growing up together how you handled the split religions. Now I have a little insight dear cousin :)

  2. Don't sweat. Holiday sweaters have become part of annual religious traditions. However dull or cheesy they may look, they are embellishments that liven the holiday spirit in so many (ridiculous yet colorful) ways.

  3. Just to mention, I've seen a handful of great holiday sweaters that are only partly-cheesy, and they pair perfectly with a mixture of good dresses.