For most Americans, the holidays smell like spices and gingerbread cookies. For me, it smells like mandarin oranges.
I was born in what was then the Soviet Union. In a country of bread lines, a mandarin orange in the middle of the harsh Russian winter was a treat, saved for a kid’s most thrilling night of the year. Wrapped in gold foil, oranges appeared on the tree to be discovered on New Year’s morning. Decades later, the scent still floods me with memories of those joyful mornings and of the New Year, the only winter holiday for my generation of Soviet kids.
In theory, there was Orthodox Christmas. But a few devout followers aside, the holiday, along with religion itself, had ceased to exist in the USSR, dismantled by the Communist Party’s anti-religious regime. Instead, New Year’s became the designated day of family dinners, ornamented trees and Grandpa Frost, aka Russian Santa. I grew up as an atheist — not by any conscious choice, but by osmosis.
Any mention of Christmas or New Year’s was strictly taboo.
When I was 7, that all changed. My family landed in Israel, courtesy of my mother’s Jewish roots. Here, having no religion wasn’t an option. The country shut down on Saturdays (the Jewish holy day), wheat products were nowhere to be found during the week of Passover and I realized the hard way how decidedly non-kosher my school lunch of a bologna sandwich on buttered bread was.
Any mention of Christmas or New Year’s was also strictly taboo. The Jewish calendar had Hanukkah and its own New Year; everything else was not to be spoken of. Even plus signs in my math class were converted to upside-down Ts so as not to resemble the cross.
Now I found my New Year’s presents quietly left under a vase of cut fir branches that we threw some tinsel on. Timidly, we lit candles on Hanukkah, and ate matzah and dipped apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah. My mom recalled the Shabbats and gefilte fish of her Jewish grandmother.
Many of my friends, immigrant kids like myself, enthusiastically embraced this new culture. I, meanwhile, felt mostly uncomfortable — my inherent skepticism trapped beneath the fear of judgement.
After five years, we moved again; this time to Canada. I remember visiting a Canadian supermarket and seeing the international food aisles. Here were the familiar matzahs and Israeli grape juice next to a display of Easter eggs and ingredients with Chinese characters on the label. It looked like freedom.
I realized that no one cared what I bought. No one judged what I celebrated, what I ate, or what I did or didn’t believe. After years of spiritual force-feeding, the choice was finally mine alone.
Twenty years later, my mother still lights Hanukkah candles. I do not. While I have created new traditions with my own family, none carry any flavor of religion.
I do believe: I believe in being a good person and in doing good. These are the beliefs I try to instill in my boys. In our home, the holidays now mean both traditional North American Christmas and a Russian-style New Year’s. But neither one is about God. They’re about excited little feet pounding down the stairs, old family jokes, and visits from Santa and his Russian cousin.
They’re about mandarin oranges.