It's taken me 7 years to enjoy Christmas. Let me explain.
I'm Jewish. Childhood and adolescence saw Christmas as nothing more than a blissful day on the beach. I moved to London where I lived for 9 years. There, everyone celebrates Christmas - Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, Agnostics - the lot! I loved Christmas in London - the novelty, the presents, the festivity. But inevitably I spent it amongst an eclectic mix of people. We did turkey and stuffing, roast potatoes to die for, Christmas cake, presents and fairy lights. The why of Christmas remained illusive or rather of no importance.
Then one fine day I returned home to South Africa, met and married an Afrikaner and became Levin-Vorster.
It's taken me seven years of marriage to navigate a ritual filled with tradition and meaning for my husband and his family. Each year despite desperately trying, I felt as if I was wearing shoes on the wrong feet. I inevitably trip, feel ridiculous and cry or combust behind the scenes. But today my shoes felt snug and I genuinely enjoyed the day (unavoidably I said two silly things and forgot one present, at which point I slipped away to the bathroom to hit my forehead three times, but this I consider par for the course and really of no consequence).
So what changed? Certainly the cultural landscape, rituals and family members remain constants. The day's ceremony is almost an exact replica of the last one. And yet today I enjoyed Christmas! So, have I changed? No and Yes. I'm still Jewish and thoroughly different to my Afrikaans family, but now I'm equipped with knowledge, about them and me.
Let me return to the day, epic in proportion and nature. We wake early at my in-laws, and my 5-year old bounds down the stairs to see if Santa has come. His eyes widen as he reviews the empty coke glass and nibbled carrots. He tears open his present, only to find himself confused as Santa has got it horribly wrong. My brain scrambles as I shoot a look at my husband (responsible for Santa's 'oopsie'), until I land on a lesson in forgiveness. 'Santa made a mistake and we must forgive him, otherwise when we make mistakes as we will, we won't forgive ourselves' I say. He looks startled and it's only the 3rd time I say this during the day that he laughs and says, 'Maybe Santa is getting old and forgot to wear his glasses'.
A Jew being married to an Afrikaner is culturally as different as Black and White. It is not an easy mix and yet...I find it most stimulating and, I love my husband.
I scramble upstairs with coffee and jam smothered toast, and set about getting ready for Church. A pause is needed here. Church is not easy for me, but we have committed ourselves to rearing our son in both traditions. I sidle next to my husband in the pew and focus on my breathing.
The service begins. At one point I sneak a look (rather a sustained stare) at my husband – he is so at home here singing his hymns and closing his eyes for prayer. I recognize that feeling, I have it when I sing the songs in Synagogue and close my eyes for prayer. There I feel connection in the way he does here. It's beautiful to see a human being consumed in prayer and so I watch him. I place my hand on his leg to show support. I catch this moment and gather it into my heart.
Returning home, I set about completing preparation for my addition to the family meal. My Afrikaans family are perfectionists. Their meals are nothing short of gourmet. The pressure can overwhelm one. Owing to a close chef friend, I'm armoured with a foolproof salad. Still, as the other dishes start to arrive, I have to remind myself that it's togetherness that is important, not the food or presents. One sister-in-law is teary and feeling overcome. I tell her I resonate. She breathes a little deeper. A moment of shared vulnerability and connection that I pocket for my keeping.
My Afrikaner family when gathered together express only the bright side of things. This used to unnerve me greatly, being much more comfortable with the interwoven duality of things – light and dark, sad and happy, confused and grateful. In my culture we talk about it all at the table – the good, the bad and the ugly. We flare up and cool down, get up to hug each other and talk over each other in a cacophony of love. My husband's family are different. Their inner landscapes are shared and grappled with behind the scenes; family gatherings are for celebration. It's simply a different way of doing things. Knowing this and knowing that each one is navigating their personal store of vulnerability, I no longer feel unsettled. Often secrets are whispered into my ear and as the human story makes me tick, I am grateful.
It's time for the giving and receiving of presents in earnest. I watch my son's awe and pocket his delight. This moment is special. This is sacred.
Grace, then a meal from the Gods, and finally Secret Santa for the adults, a new tradition in this large family. Hoots of laughter, jabs and jokes, we all receive one beautifully thought out gift. This marks the last of the day's events and coffee is served. I have not only survived another Christmas, but I have thoroughly enjoyed it.
Difference can make one feel very vulnerable indeed. Yet to navigate it with commitment can birth gentleness and humility, and if one allows it to, a certain magic takes place as the union of two different worlds births a third one, where wonder replaces fear, and curiosity enables connection. Inevitably my mind shifts to our golden country where 2016 has seen difference amplified.
A Christmas wish: May we have the courage to be vulnerable with each other in our differences in 2017, and forge connection.
Mediating being human continues...