Christmas perfection became my way of solidifying my American identity.

The beginning of December brings back memories of all the years I did my best to celebrate Christmas as if it were the key to feeling like I truly belonged in America. It also reminds me of the moment when my children, fortunately, broke that illusion.

In 1979, when I was 8 years old, my family left Iran because of the revolution, and I ended up rotating through various schools in France, England and Canada, always walking down different corridors with the same feeling: out of place, confused, desperate for connect me. . At home, I would hide in my bedroom from the sounds of my stressed-out parents fighting. At 14, I was glad to leave when I was suggested to go to an all-girls Catholic boarding school in Monterey, California.

Year after year, I drove my husband and kids crazy with demands for matching Christmas pajamas, yelling at everyone to strike the right Christmas card poses and smiles.

It would be the first time my fascination with Christmas really took root. Over the decades, I clung to the winter wonderland I saw on TV and the feeling of my first Christmas at my Catholic school. For many immigrant children like me, the holiday often feels like something magical far away that can make our otherness disappear if we immerse ourselves in it. But what I discovered was that no amount of Christmas glitter could make this feeling go away.

During my first year at boarding school, the decorations started going up in early December. There were crimson poinsettias and bright trees in the dormitories and fresh wreaths throughout the school. We lit candles, held hands, and sang “Oh Holy Night” and “Joy to the World” in goosebump-inducing harmony, our voices reverberating around the stained-glass-filled chapel. With Christmas songs playing continuously in my room, I memorized the sweet words and catchy melodies, and watched Christmas movies one after another. My favorite was “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby, which I still watch to this day. It had everything I associated with Christmas, this holiday I quickly fell in love with: community, friendship, love, belonging, and the best songs ever written.

Up to this point, every Christmas I could remember was spent with my secular family, half-heartedly celebrating the holiday with an ordinary tree and a few presents, but after the magic of boarding school, our Christmas felt like a pale imitation. I desperately craved the Hallmark version where I baked gingerbread cookies with my mom, sang classic family songs, and drank hot cocoa by a campfire in red felt stockings embroidered with our names. But these traditions were not ours.

During those teenage years, our home was far from the harmonious family I longed for. My mother and I were in a near constant state of battle. She thought that the ideal Iranian woman should be modest, fit and slender. But I was none of those things. Instead, she was bold, loud, boisterous, and always ready to fight for what she thought was unfair in my world. These qualities felt wrong in my home but right in my American life. Yet another reason why I wanted everything my new country had to offer, including the merry Christmas spirit from it.

Decades later, during my first Christmas with my husband’s Midwestern family, I was finally able to experience a version of the holiday that I had fantasized about as a child. A house filled with every decoration you can imagine, the smell of freshly baked goodies and Christmas songs playing in the background as my in-laws sat with piping hot mugs of hot chocolate by the fire, where our stuffed stockings hung, including mine, the latest addition.

So when I became a mother, I knew I had to gift this Christmas fantasy to my children. I baked and frosted dozens of cookies in the shapes of Christmas trees, Santa hats, and snowflakes, and decorated every corner of the house with wreaths, bows, and cutesy Christmas signs: Santa’s this way! And he dressed the tree from top to bottom with ornaments. But somehow it didn’t feel right, it felt like I was faking it, putting on a costume instead of something that was truly me.

Year after year, I drove my husband and kids crazy with demands for matching Christmas pajamas, yelling at everyone to strike the right poses and smiles for the Christmas card, and listening to old music while criticizing the placement of everyone’s decorations. . “You’re piling them up! Let me do it!” he would yell. It was all in an effort to bring a Hallmark illusion to life.

Then a few years ago, while we were playing Monopoly, another tradition I insisted on because I played it as a teenager and considered it quintessential America, my preteen kids stopped playing. Both said they were fed up with these forced family traditions. They told me that every year I would promise not to control the holidays, including our game night, but I still did and it was no longer fun for them. After his statement, they quickly went to their rooms. That night, I sat crying on the living room floor.

“I’m failing,” I told my husband. “I can’t make the perfect Christmas that your mom made for you. Like us should to have.”

As she put her arms around my shoulders, she said, “What are you talking about? I did not have a perfect Christmas. We had fights and problems like everyone else. we don’t need all this stuff.

I thought the better Christmas I did, the more American I would feel.

Looking into my husband’s tired eyes, our crooked tree, and our half-eaten gingerbread house, I realized that what I was fighting for did not exist.

Looking into my husband’s tired eyes, our crooked tree, and our half-eaten gingerbread house, I realized that what I was fighting for did not exist. It was the dream of a lonely immigrant boy who desperately wanted to belong to something. But now he no longer needed him to feel that he was enough, enough American, wife, mother. The next day, I relieved my family of the pressure of having to create the right Christmas memories. No more posing for photos, obligatory game nights, or matching sweaters. We were all released from my vacation mania and were able to enjoy a relaxing and messy vacation together.

Christmas, especially for secular or non-Christian people, can feel like something magical out of reach, an all-encompassing happiness machine. So it’s no surprise that many of us desperately want to be a part of this. We believe that if we enter its fairy-tale wonder, we will fully belong to the main festive custom of our country. But creating a perfect Christmas, a manufactured idea tied to our national identity through film and television, won’t make you more or less American.

When we stop chasing that false identity and accept that it’s okay to be “other,” that we are, in fact, a country of others, that’s when we can appreciate our place in this multicultural nation and enjoy imperfect vacations with our families.

I still love Christmas and all of its warm, wonderful movie feelings, but now I know that I don’t have to build an imaginary version of it to feel American. I, and all other non-Christian secular Americans, belong in this country with or without filling our homes with over-the-top decorations or tormenting our families to get them to take the perfect Christmas selfie.

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