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This week, First Person celebrates the joys of Christmastime.

Illustration by Drew Shannon

My three popsicle sticks were glued in a triangle shape to represent the outline of a reindeer’s head. I pasted on the shiny puffball and stood back. It. Was. Glorious! It had all of the elements of a masterpiece: One googly eye looking up, one googly eye looking down, a red puffball for the reindeer’s nose (Rudolph, of course). Then I fashioned brown pipe cleaners into antler shapes. I looked around, yup, mine was definitely the best.

“Okay boys and girls, please tidy up, it’s almost time to go home,” Mrs. Reid said. I crunched what was left of my candy cane and slurped up the peppermint juice in my mouth. I put away my white glue and scissors while bobbing my head to Jingle Bells, Christmas music had been blaring on her stereo for 45 minutes.

The classroom was bursting with holiday spirit. Lights hung around the room, tinsel outlined the December calendar, Mrs. Reid was wearing Christmas-tree earrings and a bright red sweater. Students giggled around me with excitement as they talked about what Santa might bring them. I let out a big sigh. Why did I have to leave this warm holiday spirit and go home? My house didn’t have any tinsel, bells, lights, not even a Christmas card, never mind a tree.

What my children have taught me about Hanukkah

“This is not our culture.”

That’s what my parents would say in their Persian accents when I asked why we couldn’t put up a tree. I would walk away with my head down and wondered why it wasn’t our culture. We had immigrated from Iran three years prior when I was 5. All I knew is that every December at school, my heart was absolutely bursting with holiday joy and I would come home and desperately want to feel the same feeling.

We still got presents from Santa but for some reason, Santa left our presents under my aunt’s tree. My aunt, who immigrated before having children, made her house into an absolute Christmas haven every year. Reindeer figurines stood outside of her front door, a wreath adorned the entryway, tinsel wrapped around their banister, the tree was dazzling in the corner, tea was served in holiday cups and appetizers in plates shaped like Santa or a snowman. Decorations were everywhere you looked: in the bathroom, a family of Christmas mice looked at you from the towel rack. Every December my aunt showed me what the holidays could look like in our home. It was bittersweet.

My parents weren’t mean, they just didn’t realize how important it was for me and, honestly, they were tired. My mom worked two jobs and was cooking, cleaning and worrying about finances. My dad worked and struggled with depression and trauma from surviving a revolution, war and the immigration process. So when they had a moment to breathe the last thing they wanted to do was to go find a tree, decorate the tree for no good reason and then take down the tree. I came from a secular household and the idea of introducing Christian ideas in the home must have seemed outrageous. But my eight-year-old spirit wanted it so badly – not the religion, but that inexplicable holiday feeling.

The year I brought home that reindeer ornament everything changed. I came home from school and looked around. Where could I hang this ornament? My mom would kill me if I poked a hole in the wall to hang this thing … what about a door knob? No, it would get lost and no one could see my masterpiece. This ornament was meant to hang on a tree!

I looked around again. Bingo. In the corner of the living room was one of our biggest house plants. Yes. This will do. I walked over and hung the reindeer on one of its leaves. The leaf drooped … it looked weird … but I’d brought an ornament home, hung it on the closest thing to a tree in my house and I felt accomplished.

I racked my brain, how else can I make this house plant look more “Christmassy”? What makes my aunt’s tree look so bright? Well, obviously the lights, but I didn’t have any. But wait, she had ball ornaments, too, silver ones, they looked so pretty. I jumped to my feet. Yes! Got it! I ran to the kitchen and opened the drawer that had the tinfoil. I stretched out a piece, ripped it off and crumpled it into a ball. I like it, it’s shiny, things are looking up!

But how to fasten it to my Christmas house-plant tree? I ran to my dad’s desk and grabbed paper clips. I untwisted one and hooked it into the tinfoil ball. I ran to the plant and pierced a leaf with the paper clip-tinfoil ornament. One ball, two balls, soon the entire house plant was full of leaves sagging with the weight of tinfoil balls and one glorious reindeer popsicle stick ornament. I stepped back, sat on the couch and beamed. It. Was. Perfect.

My mom soon came home and was horrified to see her house plant abused and destroyed by my holiday spirit. But when I looked in her eyes, I knew I had made progress. She could tell that I wasn’t going to let this one go. This was the third year I’d asked for a tree and she could see that I would destroy her home if I didn’t get one.

The following Christmas, my parents bought a miniature tree that came up to my waist. I was so proud of it and decorated that thing like there was no tomorrow. That year, the best gift my parents gave me was keeping my light on: They knew that fostering my spirit was more important than any cultural distress they may have felt. I was not asking to be Christian, I was simply asking to be a part of the holiday spirit.

As I head into this year’s challenging holiday season, I will remember my determination to celebrate as an eight-year-old immigrant child and shine even when it feels dark.

Azin Sadr lives in Vancouver.