Family

Happy Bad Choices Day!

The holiday our family celebrates on Dec. 25.

A family doing all sorts of crazy, uninhibited things.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

I’m not sure what it’s like growing up in most Jewish homes, but in mine, once December arrived, it would begin to feel a lot like Christmas. Up went the tree, the advent calendar, and the braided straw angels. As the 12 days ticked down, the rest of the crew arrived: four stockings hanging, three Santas grinning, two garlands blinking, and a sullen teen sulking upstairs. This was me, furious that we were doing this yet again, forsaking 5,000 years of history for some presents and candy canes even though we were Jewish.

At least, we were supposed to be. When my Jewish father and Catholic mother married, they’d agreed to raise the children in his faith. And they did, more or less, except for the annual Yule blowout, initiated by my father because he felt guilty for depriving his wife of happy memories, or for consigning her unbaptized children to hell. Either way, tinsel and ornaments made everyone feel better.

When I was younger, that had included me. An entire day devoted to domestic excess and gifts: I loved it. By the time I was 13, however, I’d begun to chafe. I’d had a bat mitzvah and a conversion, to render my half-Jewishness whole. It would be five more years before I’d move out and make my own holiday decisions, and in the meantime I’d spend Dec. 25 angrily eating the kosher-certified contents of my stocking and planning an adulthood of ignoring the day in movie theaters and Chinese restaurants.

I grew up. I built my own life. And then I did something I was sure I would never do and married an Episcopalian, because he was cute and funny. These, I reasoned, were qualities you had to be born with, while Judaism was something Rob could convert to. Our kids would be raised Jewish, really Jewish, and we’d pretend Dec. 25 was just another day.

The thing about becoming a parent is that you start doing lots of things you swore you wouldn’t, and you also start to understand exactly why your parents did them in the first place. Our children toddled through the first few Decembers oblivious, but by the time they were in preschool, they’d realized there was a day when everyone they knew got everything they ever wanted, and somehow they weren’t part of it. My husband, meanwhile, had given up not only Jesus but Santa and his mother’s Christmas ham. I couldn’t help thinking he deserved something in return.

Hanukkah, with its signature treat of limply fried potato, proved a pale substitute. It’s just not the same as a day where everything stops so everyone can spend the day with people they love, or pretend to love, opening presents they want, or pretend to want. We tried Festivus, too, but our kids found no joy in its traditional airing of grievances, feats of strength, and plain aluminum pole. We needed a day that felt special, offered joy and surprises, and that we could make our own.

And thus Bad Choices Day was born. Our family has celebrated it every year since.

Like most holidays, its origins are murky; each member of our family remembers its invention differently. But as I recall, it was inspired by my joking rejoinder, whenever my children requested something ridiculous, that it wasn’t Bad Choices Day (inspired, in turn, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s wonderful book about a day without limits, Yes Day!). They started asking when Bad Choices Day was, and finally I gave them an actual date. It was on Dec. 25, I said, and this year we were going to start celebrating it. After all, we had a whole day to fill, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, and we desperately needed some distraction.

Though I didn’t think about it at the time, there is actually some Jewish precedent for our fake holiday: Nittel Nacht, the rarely observed 17th-century Jewish take on Christmas Eve. On Nittel Nacht it’s custom not to spend the night studying Torah but instead on narishkeit, that is, activities that would be considered a waste of time the rest of the year. Its origins, too, are unclear, though it likely has something to do with the fact that Christmas Eve could be a dangerous night for shtetl Jews and it might be a good idea to keep your head down and stay inside, playing card games or chess.

Bad Choices Day quickly became an annual tradition, and a favorite one. The rules are simple: For one day only, as long as it doesn’t hurt you or anyone else, you can do it. The children would begin planning their bad choices months ahead of time. They would eat Popsicles for breakfast and wear bathing suits or pajama pants or no pants at all. They would not use utensils or toothbrushes or washcloths. There would be unlimited candy, and they could watch whatever they wanted, even the terrible shouting cartoons. If I’m honest, junk food and excessive screen time were bad choices we made on a near-daily basis, but at least on Bad Choices Day, Rob and I didn’t feel bad about it.

Perhaps because of that fairly unlimited year-round TV and junk food, some years the children rebelled. Once, they were most excited about spending the day doing yoga. This frankly disappointed us, but in the spirit of Bad Choices Day, we allowed them to make their own mistakes.

Some activities are hard to carry out on Christmas Day, including our traditional Bad Choices Day lunch of doughnuts. It can be tough to find an open bakery on Dec. 25, which is why we once ended up buying a dozen assorted doughnuts at the nearest gas station. In a Bad Choices Day miracle, they turned out to be fresh and delicious and remain one of our happiest family memories.

When our son was 5, he was most excited about being able to say the F-word, which we agreed to, though we all thought it might be better, considering his tender age, if he said it quietly in the bathroom. “I said it!” we heard him shout, then, “I said it again!”

As for Rob and myself, we mostly do what we do every day: eat what we want, wear what we want, say what we want, and do what we want. All we lack is the guilt. Which suggests that the fun of the day, for the kids, is getting to act like adults. For their parents, it’s a preview of a time we both look forward to and dread. It would be nice not to have to nag them, every day, to go to bed at a reasonable time and don’t eat that and please put on a clean shirt; but the thought of having no say at all in their choices still terrifies. For one day a year, we all get used to the idea.

If you ask our son what his favorite Bad Choices Day activity has been, he’ll tell you it’s biting the furniture. This is something I didn’t realize he did and suggests that my own bad choice is to eat a tin of popcorn, fall asleep on the couch, and ignore my children (it is). This year, that may be harder, as the children have assembled a lot of noisy things for a Bad Choices Day jam band of ukuleles, party-favor flutes, and the double-barreled fart guns that I, in an unsanctioned bad choice of my own, recently bought at a thrift store. But I suspect we’ll still have fun, because on Bad Choices Day, anything can happen. Episcopalian bachelors can become great Jewish fathers; gas station doughnuts can make a fantastic lunch; and bad choices can turn out to be the best ones of all.

Act Natural.