Home for the Holidays

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In a world of food allergies, the holidays were a sancutary

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As a child, I often felt left out during special times of the year. With food-centric occasions littering the calendar, my allergies to milk, eggs and nuts made life challenging, even dangerous, at times. Birthday cupcakes, ice cream and treats were everywhere. From class parties to school trips, from outings with friends to town fairs, I was constantly confronted with foods that were forbidden.

Every holiday came with its traditional foods, complete with numerous allergens. On Halloween, I couldn’t trick-or-treat in a carefree way like the other kids. Any candy I did collect was thoroughly checked and often discarded. On Valentine’s Day, mine were the only cards exchanged without candy hearts or chocolates. On July 4th, enjoying the array of barbecue, sides and desserts was an impossibility.

It was frustrating to feel so different. It made the special times of year seem less so. All except one.

The holiday season—Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas in my family—was different. When school let out for winter vacation, I was in another world, a safe space. For those few weeks, I felt fully included as everyone in my family ate the same allergy-friendly dishes that I did. I could participate fully without worry, without a second thought, eating festive foods, desserts and treats with the ease and spontaneity that most people take for granted.

What I didn’t fully appreciate back then was the great lengths my family took to ensure this was possible. Each year, my grandmother served a lavish Thanksgiving meal that was meticulously planned to be dairy-free, egg-free and nut-free. My father stayed up late on Christmas Eve to make allergy-safe cinnamon buns from scratch for Christmas morning (a tradition he continues to this day). My mother went from store to store to hunt down safe chocolate Hanukkah gelt so I could play dreidel with my cousins. We even baked allergen-free cookies together as a family to take to gatherings outside our home.

As an adult, the holidays aren’t without their challenges. Navigating parties, workplace celebrations and festive outings with food allergies can be tricky. In retrospect, I realize the restrictions I learned as a youngster were an absolute necessity to ensure my safety. As a child, however, I couldn’t fully grasp the reason for the pattern of exclusion. There was something that hurt about being left out.

This is what made the holiday season so unique and special to me. It was a brief respite from the daily challenges of severe food allergies, a break from the sense of isolation and necessary rules and precautions. It was a time when I felt included and safe and I could finally relax.

Looking back, I now recognize that my supportive, loving family made this time of year a true childhood sanctuary for me. Of all the holiday gifts they gave me, this was their greatest.

Joshua Feblowitz is completing his final year at Harvard Medical School. He lives in Boston.

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