The Christmas Baby’s Dilemma

Combining two celebrations into one day can be a gift or a curse.

An illustration of a birthday cupcake being placed into a Christmas stocking.
Africa Studio / Andrew Slatter / Shutterstock / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

When my mother went into labor on December 24, 23 years ago, she begged the doctor to deliver me before midnight. A December baby herself, she knew that being born during the holiday season was difficult, and wanted to spare me from being born on an actual holiday. She also wanted to get the labor over with, as she tells it, so she could rush home to prepare Christmas dinner for all of the cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who were gathered at our house. Despite her best intentions, however, I was born on the 25th of December. Thus began a lifetime of “You must’ve been your parents’ favorite gift” jokes and “Wow, a Christmas baby” comments whenever I get carded.

Rather than making Christmas doubly exciting, being a Christmas baby put a damper on the holiday. My birthday felt like an afterthought when millions of other people were celebrating at the same time. But even if my feelings toward the 25th itself were complicated, I still loved the Christmas season.

In the week leading up to Christmas, my parents would buckle me into my car seat one evening, tune into the holiday radio station, and drive through our neighborhood, slowing down in front of the houses with the best decorations. Pressing my face against the glass, I would marvel at the twinkling kaleidoscope of lights, the inflatable snowmen, the wire reindeer on rooftops. How lucky I am to be born at such a magical time of the year, I’d think.

I relished the jaunty carols, the endless supply of sugar cookies, even the red-and-green color scheme, and on Christmas morning, I would wake up elated. But after opening presents, my parents’ attention quickly turned to preparing to host Christmas dinner. I would hope to be excused from cooking or cleaning, lounging around in pajamas for most of the day, but no—I was expected to help. Now I don’t mind this so much, but as a kid, I would spend at least a little bit of my birthday in a sour mood. I spent all year seeing my friends and cousins have special days all to themselves, and I felt cheated out of an experience that everyone else enjoyed.

A page from Morgan's mother's journal.
A journal entry from Morgan’s mother on December 23, 1996. (Courtesy of Morgan Ome)

My parents, to their credit, tried their best to separate my birthday from Christmas (even though they didn’t exempt me from hostess duties). They’ve always had two distinct presents for me to open on Christmas morning—helpfully labeled with “Merry Christmas, Morgan!” and “Happy Birthday, Morgan!” (They also instructed Santa to do the same.)

Christmas babies’ challenge is to find a way to distinguish their birthday from the holiday. My parents let me choose when to celebrate with my friends, and over the years I’ve had birthday parties in January, February, even March. Other Christmas babies shared with me some of the unique ways they’ve tried to harmonize the two celebrations. Bradley Lawson, a 28-year-old in Wasilla, Alaska, told me that his parents would wake him and his siblings up at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning to open presents, then go back to sleep. After a midday nap, Lawson’s birthday activities would commence. He explained that his parents’ philosophy was “Let’s get everyone taken care of and then you can have your excitement in that second part of the day.” In middle school, he said, his family got creative and decided to celebrate his half-birthday, in June. “None of us liked it,” Lawson said. “It wasn’t what I was used to.”

Jennifer Fowlie, a 29-year-old in Geneva, was never bothered by the timing of her birthday when she was a child growing up in Scotland. She got to decide the menu for Christmas dinner—usually pizza—and loved the celebratory mood of the holiday season. However, for the past few years, Fowlie has spent Christmas with her fiancé, who is German, and his family. “They celebrate Christmas on the 24th,” she told me, so “the 25th is just my birthday now, which is very weird, actually.”

Many of the Christmas babies I spoke with said that while they wished they could celebrate with friends on their actual birthday, they enjoyed having guaranteed family time. Anna Marquardt, a 39-year-old Christmas baby living in Washington, D.C., told me that several of her relatives also have birthdays near Christmas. When the extended family gathered for the annual Christmas Day festivities, her youngest sister (born in August) would ask, “Why do those guys get a tree at their birthday and I don’t get any tree?”

Even though Marquardt now appreciates her birthday, she still recognizes that the day is often overshadowed by festivities, and the namesake of Christmas himself. A few years ago, she wrote a song called “Born on Christmas Day,” which has the hilariously memorable chorus of “Stop stealing my thunder, Jesus!” Marquardt explained to me that “the song is really very tongue in cheek, because it makes it seem like I don't like my birthday, but I actually really do.”

Like Marquardt, I started to embrace my birthday more as I grew older. But I spent years disliking my birthday, especially after my parents separated, when I was 12. After that, the holidays just served as a stressful reminder that our family had split. But on my 17th birthday, a confluence of circumstances meant I finally got to spend the day on my terms.

That year, all I wanted was to sleep in, eat junk food, and watch the Doctor Who Christmas special. But my mom had planned for us to go to Los Angeles to see relatives, so none of those were options. Then I came down with a terrible cold on Christmas Eve. I spent the day in a cold sweat, swaddled under the covers. On Christmas Day, my fever still hadn’t broken, so I stayed in the hotel while my mom and grandma went to join the rest of our family. I ordered some soup and faded in and out of sleep. In the evening, I turned the TV on and watched Matt Smith in his final Doctor Who appearance.

I’d never been alone on my birthday before. At first, I felt giddy, even though I was sick. This was exactly what I wanted, I thought. But looking around the room, I felt the absence of Christmas: no smell of evergreen, no gaudy yet cheery decorations, no sound of the table being set. I missed my family. By getting what I wanted for my birthday, I was missing out on Christmas. That day I decided I didn’t want to make that trade-off again.

Morgan Ome and her grandmother at Christmas time.
Morgan and her obachan at Christmas time. (Courtesy of Morgan Ome)

For my 18th birthday, I invited all my friends over to make ornaments and decorate the Christmas tree one day in mid-December. As we blasted Christmas carols and hot-glued popsicle sticks together, suddenly the fact that I could have a joint Christmas and birthday party made me feel lucky and unique. Some of my friends told me that it was like having double Christmas, and my Jewish friends were excited to get a taste of the holiday.

That year, on the 25th, my parents also started a tradition of having Christmas dinner as a family. We invite any friends or relatives who are in the Bay Area, and my obachan makes a big plate of Spam musubi to snack on while we cook dinner together. My parents are still separated, but it’s comforting to be able to come together for a holiday and celebrate.

For many people, birthdays are the ultimate celebration of the individual. What do you want to do today? Whom do you want to see? What do you want to eat? I’ve craved that experience my whole life. But there is something humbling about being born on Christmas, about approaching the day as one of family and community, rather than one focused on the self.

Since moving to the East Coast five years ago, I don’t get to take part in all the traditions I looked forward to in childhood. By the time I get back to my hometown in late December, the Christmas-tree lots are mostly picked through and my mom has already decorated the house with tinsel and fake snow. But I still get that cozy family feeling that reminds me that I was born into a community that loves me. In the days to come, I know my mom’s house will be full of people, and my stomach will be full of roast beef and gravy. My dad will stick candles in a Yule-log cake at the end of the meal. And I still take an evening to drive through the neighborhood and admire the lights. In those moments, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything at all.