The Christmas That Made Me Question My Traditions
Christmas with my Catholic family has always been the same: just me and my family hanging out on Christmas Eve. We have tamale dinner when my dad comes home, followed by Christmas mass and come home to open presents at midnight. When the priest at our local parish moved to a different parish, my family followed him to enjoy his Christmas mass. When my nephew was born, my mom acquired a Baby Jesus doll so we could take it to church and have it blessed before placing it on our Nativity scene at home; this is a Catholic tradition.
A few years ago my family agreed to let my "friend join us for Christmas. I recall my excitement to share my family’s wonderful Christmas. I love showing off and was so excited to show off my family’s cute lights that adorned the outside of our house. I was proud to show off the magical Nativity scene that my mom put up with a large backdrop of La Virgen de Guadalupe. I was thrilled to have her try my mom’s amazing tamales. I was mostly excited because my "friend" was definitely a girlfriend, as in gay and she would be experiencing her first Christmas with my family. What a lucky gal!
Before I go on, I should explain why this was her first Christmas. My girlfriend was Jewish. She was also white, and before dating her, I had few friendships with white people. Enough to feel comfortable around them, but not enough to feel self-conscious about myself. So when I started dating Girlfriend and it was Christmastime, I was 100% on board with the idea of inviting her to my family’s Christmas. In my mind, my family is pure magic. I never thought about how particular our Christmas traditions can be. I watch TV, of course, so I know how white people do Christmas. I never thought twice about how much different my family traditions are in comparison. It wasn’t until I brought Girlfriend to Christmas that I felt like that the things we do are slightly weird.
It was Christmas Eve. Girlfriend and I arrived at my parent's house before my dad got home, we hung out with my siblings while we waited for him to come home so we could eat. Our Christmas Eve meal is always the same: tamales and champurrado. That year, my dad was responsible for buying the masa (dough) for the tamales and he bought the wrong kind. He bought dough for tortillas instead of dough for tamales. The difference is in the way the dough is prepared. I was disappointed; I wanted Girlfriend to stuff her face on my mami’s delicious tamales. Girlfriend didn’t care; she still thought they were delicious. Afterward, we went to church and brought the Baby Jesus doll to have it blessed. This was tradition.
I enjoy looking at everyone's Baby Jesus dolls. Some older women dress their dolls up in hand-sewn dresses. Some families have their young child hold the doll. Some bring a bed of straw for their doll to lay in. At some point during mass, the priest blesses the dolls. Others, people bring up the dolls with them when they go up for the Eucharist. This year, of course, we took our Baby Jesus doll to mass.
Girlfriend and I drove in a separate car from my family. She asked why my mom was taking a baby doll. I laughed - poor little Jewish girl; she doesn't understand Christmas! I explained that it was a Baby Jesus doll. Duh! She didn't get it. I explained further that Christmas is to celebrate Jesus being born. I thought it was totally normal to take a Baby Jesus doll to Christmas mass; why wouldn't we? I thought it would be sufficient to simply clarify that the doll symbolized Baby Jesus. I realized that I had to break the explanation down even further. So I let Girlfriend see what the deal was when we got to church. She'd see all the other dolls there and surely it'll make sense with context.
I love going to Christmas mass. It's always in Spanish. The priest always says the right thing, and we share the space with other Latinx families, knowing that we all just had a tamale dinner. Mass was beautiful, as always. There were many Baby Jesus dolls in attendance,all leaving once they'd been blessed. During the car ride home, I asked Girlfriend if the Baby Jesus dolls made sense after seeing them blessed. She understood the symbolism, but still asked why we do it. "Why dolls?" I didn't understand what she was asking. "Everyone takes their Baby Jesus dolls to get it blessed at Christmas mass. During the rest of the year, Baby Jesus rests somewhere in the house as display, waiting to be blessed and born again. It makes sense!" At this point, I felt like I was convincing myself that it made sense. Did it not make sense to outsiders?
When we got home, my mom let my little nephew could place our Baby Jesus doll in the Nativity scene. It was midnight, and it was officially the birth of Christ. It isn't strange at all to have these dolls, right? Was it creepy? When we first got our Baby Jesus doll, I thought it made us one of the cool families. Why was I suddenly trying so hard to convince myself that we weren't like the other families with their dolls?
Girlfriend proceeded to share the experience with our mutual friends, making sure to bring up the dolls. For some reason this made me feel uncomfortable and slightly embarrassed. What if no one else thinks this is normal? Each time she brought up the Baby Jesus dolls, I screamed internally, asking her to stop mentioning it. Eventually, I stopped trying to convince myself that it wasn't weird. It's not. It is what we do. It's part of my family's magical Christmas tradition. This is our Navidad. I don't want to make Girlfriend sound like a terribly judgmental person. She wasn't. She was simply confused because I thought the dolls didn't require much explanation. To me, everything that my family does for Christmas is normal.
Yet I was left wondering what else is strange and difficult to explain about my family's traditions. Is it weird that we're so particular about the type of masa we use for tamales? Is it weird that sometimes, we line up outside the Amapola Tortilleria waiting to get the right masa? Pfft! I don't think so. I let myself get self-conscious because a partner asked about my family's traditions. I still ask Girlfriend if something that my family does is weird. Maybe subconsciously I do it for reassurance or to get her white approval. Prior to dating her I had never felt weird about my family's traditions. I grew up in a predominately Latinx neighborhood where our traditions were "normal." Girlfriend was the first white person who ever came close to my family's magical Christmas so part of me was outraged. "How dare you question the way things are done?" While another part of me shielded my eyes shyly asking, "How weird is this? Should I have kept these traditions within the walls of my parent's house?"
I've had Christmas without my family. It was sad and lonely. I've experienced a Hannukah celebration. It was different, but I felt welcomed. Nonetheless, both experiences made me crave my family's Christmas more than ever. I will continue to my family's Christmas traditions. I will have my own Baby Jesus doll and take it to Christmas mass. I'll have the whole thing: my large Virgen de Guadalupe display, my lights and all. Let the white girls wonder; I want my Navidad.