I remember my first Christmas. I was thirty-six back then.
On a dark, frosty morning of December 15, 1990, my family (my wife and two little kids, aged two and three) and I left St. Petersburg, Russia, and flew to France. I had a six-month research grant to work in a lab in Orsay, a scientific hub southwest of Paris.
The first few days in France were stressful. We moved into a rented apartment, opened utility accounts, and learned ways to move around and buy groceries—none of this being easy, given our lack of French. Besides, our son, apparently shocked by a sudden change in the environment, stopped eating normal food and subsisted on baguettes and sugar.
In the meantime, France was gearing up for Christmas. We didn’t celebrate Christmas in Russia—the New Year with its decorated trees and presents being the major holiday of the season—so the intensity of Joyeux Noel themes and decorations on the streets and in store windows was amusing and even puzzling. But we didn’t have time to think about that.
On Christmas eve, we were invited for dinner at my French boss’s house. In the sitting room, we discovered a tree with real candles lit up. Despite our hosts’ assurance that it was perfectly safe, I spent the rest of the evening watching the tree and ready to fight a fire.
At dinner, my boss’s daughter persuaded our son to try oysters; that had ended his self-imposed hunger strike. He’s been a devoted consumer of oysters ever since.
On parting, my boss told me, with all the strength he, a charming French, could muster: “Don’t even think of showing up in the lab until January. I don’t want people in the building gossiping that I exploit foreigners.”
On our way home, I said to my wife: “Look, we deserve this vacation. Tomorrow, let’s buy a tree—I know a place—and celebrate the New Year as we always do.”
Early next morning, with the kids still sleeping, we left our apartment and went to our supermarché. The absence of people on the streets surprised us. We turned the corner and, to our horror, saw that the lights in the supermarché were out; it was closed.
Refusing to believe our eyes, we reached the place where, a couple of days before, I had seen Christmas trees on sale. The place was empty; a few green needles remained on the neatly swept pavement.
My holiday was stolen from me. I felt devastated. I felt mugged. I felt robbed.
It was my wife, as usual, who rescued us. She found somewhere a large, faintly smelling fir branch, decorated it with a few ornaments (already on post-Christmas sale), and we had our well-deserved New Year family celebration—just the four of us.
My grant had been extended, and we celebrated our next Christmas still in France—as the French: a Christmas tree (no candles, though), good food, champagne, and a lot of gifts for the kids. In the summer, we moved to the United States and celebrated our first Christmas here. Then again, and again. Celebrating Christmas has become a habit, then the favorite holiday of the year.
I’m not a religious man. For me, celebrating Christmas simply means sharing the spirit of joy with the people around me. I would celebrate Hanukkah or Ramadan if I lived in a Mid-Eastern country. As I would celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October if I lived in Canada. As I celebrate Cinco de Mayo with my daughter-in-law, who is Mexican.
So, if someone somewhere in the world asks me, “Are you going to celebrate this holiday with us?”, my response will be instant: “I’m game!”
Merry Christmas to everyone who celebrates it!