I think I was seven or eight the day I cried to my mum about just wanting a cake with candles.

I pleaded so much that she brought out the Victoria sponge with raspberry jam that she had just made, stuck a dinner candle on top and lit it. ‘Are you happy now?’ I wiped my eyes and nodded, because for a moment I think I genuinely was. I made a wish like I had seen on TV – probably for Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin to be my boyfriend, yuck – then blew out the candle. I don’t even think it was my actual birthday.

The joy quickly went away though as I looked at the once perfectly good cake now with blobs of wax and a gaping hole in it, and waited for a call from Macaulay that never came. What a letdown. I couldn’t understand what the fuss was about, but I was glad that I finally got an insight into the ritual that seemed to be the norm for everyone else but me.

I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, a Christian subsect that views many aspects of society as morally corrupt and, cheerily, believe that the world is due to end any minute now. Basically, Witnesses believe that living according to their interpretation of the Bible will mean that once the world ends, they will be rewarded with eternal life. And while it’s not specifically mentioned in the Bible that birthdays are bad, Witnesses don’t celebrate birthdays as they believe they are rooted in pagan origins and therefore a big no-no to God.

As an adult, the reasoning behind JWs not doing birthdays (as well as Christmas, Halloween and other ‘worldly’ practices) makes more sense to me – but as a kid with little understanding of what the point of religion even was, it was mostly just embarrassing and silly. What kind of god hates cake, presents and a cute song? And I constantly felt guilty for being naturally excited about turning a year older.

This isn’t to say the lives of Jehovah’s Witness children all over the world are grim. I still got presents and stuff, just sprinkled throughout the year for no reason at all, and there were always parties for some reason or another. I was pretty lucky in that my mum understood how confusing being part of a world-critical religion but having to, you know, be a part of the world, could be for a kid. A lot of Witness families are much stricter though. I remember one boy in the year below me at my primary school whose parents requested he sit out of the end of Autumn term assemblies so that he didn’t have to sing the Christmas carols. I think the most important thing in my family was that we had a solid foundation and understanding of the faith but weren’t given an excuse to be made to feel like weirdos, especially at an age when that can happen easily enough without even bringing religion into the mix. 

Over the course of my teens, my family gradually stopped being practicing Witnesses. Conveniently, this was also at a time I was increasingly convinced that it was in no way the faith for me. So the first time I had a proper birthday cake with real candles and actual icing, I was 18. This time it felt a little more magical (although that could have been the cocktails). I can’t remember what I wished for but I remember not having that guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach that I was doing something wrong.

I’ve still never had a big party though, I don’t really see the point when I managed my entire childhood without one. Now I see birthdays as a time to reflect on how much I’ve grown over the past year and where I hope the next year will take me, whether that’s spent amongst friends and family or alone. But either way, I’m always happy to catch up on all the cake I missed.

@KirbyAfua

‘Oh, you poor thing,’ is what most people say when I tell them I don’t celebrate Christmas.

You see I’m Jewish – not just a cultural bagel-eating Jew, but a synagogue-attending (although not as much as I really should) Jew – so for me, Christmas isn’t really a ‘thing.’ I’ve never had a Christmas tree. I’ve hardly ever opened a present on Christmas Day (unless it’s happened to fall within the Jewish present-giving holiday Chanukkah – an eight-day long festival which also takes place in December). And I’ve never gone carolling… although tbf, neither have most of my Christian mates.

So does that mean that I hate the whole Christmas period? That exchanging gifts in December makes me feel deeply uncomfortable? That I feel mortally offended when someone wishes me a ‘Merry Christmas’? Of course not. I may be Jewish, but I’m also British, so while I might not enjoy the full, traditional Christmas experience, it’s almost impossible for me to avoid getting into the festive sprit altogether. And you know what? I wouldn’t want to.

Mince pies, Christmas movies (the cheesier the better IMO) and Christmas parties fill me with as much joy (or, when it comes to work parties, horror) as the next person. And I also have a pretty banging line in Christmas jumpers (three of which – yes, I have more than three – I picked up at a Jewish charity shop). Even at my parent’s house – an otherwise Christmas-free zone – the Christmas spirit sneaks in, in the form of food. We might not have a stack of presents under an elaborately decorated tree, but jam-filled lebkuchen (traditional German Christmas biscuits), H U G E boxes of chocolates and nuts in shells (which inevitably, no one can actually crack), fill the house. In fact, we even have a traditional roast turkey dinner complete with champagne and crackers on Christmas Day, and my mum bakes her own Christmas cake.

But while we may subscribe to a traditional Christmas diet, that’s where my Christmas Day activities stop. While for most people, Christmas Day is filled with joy and excitement, I tend to find the whole thing quite boring. You see, because we don’t really celebrate Christmas, I spend the day with just my immediate family (my mum, dad and two younger sisters).

So while there are inevitably some pretty epic arguments (as per Crimbo tradition), there’s none of the excitement of seeing some long-lost drunken uncle do his annual eggnog-fuelled Elvis impression. Add to that the fact that there’s never anything on TV (but seriously, HOW is there never anything decent on TV? No, really?), and that even if I do, somehow, manage to summon up the energy to actually leave the house, there’s nothing to do because nothing’s actually open. The whole day just tends to drag.

In fact, the best solution I’ve found to beat the Christmas Day boredom is to work. As I’ve got older and realised I’m happy (or at least not massively bothered) about working on Christmas Day, it’s become one of my favourite perks about being Jewish. Seriously. You see, 99.9% of Brits would rather pull out their own toenails than work on Christmas Day. Therefore, when you’re happy to do so – thus allowing them to spend a full day trapped in a house with their entire extended family, stuffing themselves silly and playing endless games of charades – they’re so incredibly grateful, that you can demand all kinds of ‘favours’ in return. For instance I once merrily agreed to work the entire Christmas period up to Boxing Day (which, incidentally I much prefer to actual Christmas Day, because A. shops are open, B. the TV is always better, C. turkey sandwiches), and in return didn’t have to go back into the office till January 7. JANUARY 7! It was glorious!

And talking to other non-Christmas celebrating friends, the consensus is the same. Yes, we enjoy the spirit of the period. Yes, we like the time off. Yes, we’re ALWAYS happy to receive presents/ food/ happy greetings. So while I might not buy into the whole Jesus thing or get the full British Christmas experience, I still look forward to it every year.  Merry Christmas, one and all!

@MissSisiG