Growing up Jewish, I learned early on that Christmas was the greatest party I’d never be invited to. There would be no Santa coming down our chimney, no chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and no house wrapped in twinkling lights. Damn they made Christmas tantalizing. No wonder Joseph and Mary were camped out on the neighbor’s lawn. They were hoping to get a ticket inside. But sadly, the Christmas rules were very clear: No Jews Allowed.
The best we could do was draw the blinds in our homes and hunker down until January first, when Baby Jesus would make way for Baby New Year. But even that had its limitations. Like our gentile brothers and sisters, Jews require food. This meant occasional trips to the supermarket where “Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas” played on the store loudspeaker. Oh, that heartbreakingly beautiful song. My people were already pre-disposed to depression, did we really need this as well?
In the baked goods section, a chef with a penchant for cookie based architecture built a glorious gingerbread house the size of a fire hydrant. With its gumdrop tiled roof and frosting frosted windows, this wasn’t a mere representation of Christmas, it was Christmas itself, and I wanted to live in it. If only I could shrink down to the size of a green army man and crawl inside. I’d barricade the door by sticking peppermints together like cement blocks. Anyone who dared poke their head in would get a sharpened candy cane to the eyeball. Perhaps I’d chew the neck off a gingerbread man and leave his stiff and disfigured body propped against the licorice rain gutters, a warning to any would-be intruder that this Christmas Jew was here to stay. Good luck evicting me from a house made of bread. What government agency has jurisdiction over that?!
But of course, I wasn’t allowed to linger, as my mother was in a hurry to buy ingredients for our upcoming holiday dinner. Hanukkah. She grabbed my arm and pulled me past the sugar cookies, peanut brittles, and powdered pastries that all the good Christian boys and girls got to enjoy. Hell, even the bad ones got to enjoy. And where was my mother taking me? None other than that Jewish culinary destination known as the potato bin.
“I’m making potato pancakes!” said my mother, as she carefully hand selected each bland, lifeless rock that would eventually wind up in our stomachs. Somewhere along the way, my ancestors had managed to take a perfectly good breakfast, the pancake, remove the delicious doughy part, and replace it with an edible tuber fried in grease. That was the problem with Jewish food. Centuries of persecution had resulted in a cuisine that was only truly delicious when your family hadn’t eaten in six years. “And we’re going to top them with applesauce!” she happily added. Applesauce, what am I eighty?
Even as my mother dragged me away from my quaint little gingerbread chateau, my eyes would’t let go. But maybe we could buy the necessary ingredients to make our own.
“Can gingerbread houses be a Hanukkah thing, too?” I asked my mother, hopefully.
The poor woman couldn’t find the words to let me down gently. So instead, she hit me with a ton of bricks. “You don’t want that Christmas shit. It’s all diabetes.” And we continued on our way.
I can’t blame her for wanting to remove me from all the Christmas temptation. Parents want to give their kids everything, and this was definitely something she couldn’t. Frosty the Snowman standing at the checkout aisle wasn’t making it any easier. With his corn cob pipe and eyes of coal, he was both scrappy and delightful. What religion wouldn’t want to claim him as their own.
“How about Frosty the Snowman. Is he Christian, too?”
“Are you kidding me?” she said, “He probably drives a Camaro.” And she went back to bowling dinner potatoes down the cashier’s conveyer belt. In the moment, I was surprised to hear that Jews didn’t drive Camaros. But now that I’m older, I realize my mother was probably right.
To be honest, this whole Hanukkah thing needed a lot of rethinking. Like most holidays, it sprung from an historic event. In this case, the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. There aren’t a lot of words in a phrase like that, that a kid can latch onto. Temple reminded me of Hebrew school, which I wasn’t particularly fond of. And Jerusalem reminded me of Temple, which reminded me of Hebrew school. But for the sake of preserving my sense of childhood wonder, I was willing to keep an open mind.
According to lore, the inhabitants of the temple had enough oil to last only one day, but by some miracle, the oil lasted 8 days. I know I’m speaking out of school here, but oil burning for 8 days… is that really a miracle, or was something else going on? Once, when I was little, we had a container of orange juice that lasted a full month, and I know for a fact that wasn’t a miracle. My mother was just cutting it with water every morning. Thirty days later, my Tropicana was as thin as a urine sample. But talking snowmen and flying reindeer… now that was a miracle!
Part of the problem with Hanukkah is that you couldn’t hype its arrival because it never fell on the same date. The Jewish calendar is lunar, not solar, which is the cause of that unfortunate problem. Sometimes Hanukkah would land near Christmas, other times it came shockingly early.
“Hey, did you know Hanukkah falls on November 30th this year?”
“November? Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
The Christian kids used to mock us. They knew their ancestors had built a better mousetrap and they weren’t afraid to throw it in our faces. Inevitably, some Jewish kid would lash out, “We’re the ones who feel bad for you. We have 8 days of presents, and you only have one!”
But that was bullshit. Everyone knew seven of those days were for socks or pencils or soap-on-a-rope. Who did this schmuck think he was kidding? He’s trying to pass off Hanukkah… I’m sorry, “Chanukah”… as the greatest holiday ever, and we couldn’t even agree on the spelling. As it stood, I’d have to admire Christmas from afar. Until one eve, one foggy Christmas Eve, when I managed to experience Christmas as an insider.
It happened while on vacation in Amish Country, Pennsylvania. It was my father’s idea to take the family there, instead of someplace good, like Disney World. Life in the Amish Country wasn’t about riding log flumes. It was about hard work, sacrifice and living without technology. This jab wasn’t lost on me, as I had been constantly nagging my father to buy me an Atari. To the ignorant or desirably young, Atari was an early computer console where you could pretend to hit something that resembled a ball against something that resembled a paddle. In real life, this would’ve been dreadfully boring, but plug it into a TV and my generation was hooked. But Dad wasn’t having any of it, and now I was forced to learn a lesson in deprivation.
“See that Amish man driving that buggy? You can’t even take a picture of him.”
“Is it because you won’t buy me a camera?” I said.
“No. It’s because his religion forbids it. And don’t be a wise ass.”
We spent Christmas Eve at a nearby resort that was the vacation spot… in 1958. Once upscale and chic, the hotel had fallen into disrepair. A fire roared in the lobby, and I can only imagine it was fueled by a mountain of state issued safety violations. Fortunately, whatever money they saved in sprinkler upgrades was spent on Christmas decorations that brought wonder to my Hebrew eyes. Flecks of silver and gold were splayed everywhere, and they had a name for it: tinsel. I learned other words, too. The aging pianist in the lobby sang of magical creatures that were half reptile and half bird, called turtle doves. They sounded slow and peaceful and I dreamed of keeping one in a tank. There was a log called a yule, and in a bowl there was a nog. Everything about this place was pulled out of a Thomas Kincaid painting they sell in the mall, and it was glorious. In the morning, I was told, we’d be visited by Santa himself. Of course I was aware that Santa Claus wasn’t real, but at least I’d get to meet a real person dressed as Santa Claus, and that counted for something.
On Christmas morning, we awoke to find fresh snowfall on the ground, just like the movies promised. My sister and I quickly got dressed and raced downstairs to the Christmas tree, like you’re supposed to. And there, handing out presents to a hoard of waiting children, was the big man himself — Jolly St. Nick.
“Go get one,” urged my mother.
“But we’re Jewish!”
“He doesn’t know that. He’s probably drunk. Pick a big one.”
I was so conflicted. Wasn’t I supposed to be proud of my heritage instead of taking someone else’s? Isn’t that why my parents sent me to Hebrew school every Sunday? Or was that just punishment for something none of us could remember. “You go first,” I said to my sister. In a flash, she was at Santa’s side, making sure he didn’t give her something too small. Apparently, she didn’t have the same reservations I did about lying to transients dressed as fictional deities.
My mother nudged me to keep up with her. “Go on, before they’re all gone.” I inched my way towards Santa and she called out, “But don’t get too close, he’s probably a child molester.”
I approached, just as Santa was being handed a fresh stack of presents from one of his elves, who I now recognized as our busboy from last night’s dinner. I wondered what misdeed he had committed that he needed to be humbled even further. “That’ll teach you for breaking that stemware, Ivan. Now put the ears on.”
Admittedly, I took pleasure receiving a present from Santa Claus, and the fact that I might be depriving a deserving Christian child just because he was a late getting to the lobby didn’t bother me in the slightest. Did that make me a bad person, or had I already crossed that threshold when I told Santa my name was Timmy?
My sister and I rushed to a quiet part of the lobby to unwrap our Christmas bounty. I was certain mine contained the perfect toy. Probably that Atari I was hounding my dad for. The moment before unwrapping any gift is always magical, because that’s when the present is at its highest potential. It could be anything you wanted it to be. I suppose the same could be said about a Jewish child observing Christmas from afar. Just imagine.
I ravenously teared off the paper that was standing between me and pure Christmas joy. “Fa-la-la-la-la,” sang my heart. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered what lied beneath. It wasn’t an Atari, I can tell you that. It was bargain rack board game that the hotel picked up at the thrift store. Santa had knifed me right in the Jewish gut.
“What do you think?” said my mom.
“I think this sucks.”
“I told you to pick a big one.”
I should’ve tossed that game right in the garbage, but I didn’t. Instead, I packed it into the car and brought it home with me, where it taunted me for several years. It was my lone Christmas present, and as much as it disappointed me, I couldn’t bare to part with it. I’m certain I never once played it, or even had the desire to do so. And although I don’t recall the exact name of this board game, for the sake of things, let’s just call it Abject Disappointment by Parker Bros. I had betrayed my heritage by pretending to be Christian and for what? A lousy board game.
Years later, when my daughters were little, the notion of celebrating Christmas came back to revisit me. My mother-in-law was trying to convince me to let my children celebrate it. “It’s not a religious holiday anymore,” she insisted. “It’s an American holiday.” And I flew off the handlebars. “It’s got the word Christ in it, and three letters of the word mass. I’d say their branding is spot on.”
Perhaps Americans were the first to commercialize Christmas, but by no means was it an American holiday. The kicker is, my mother-in-law is Jewish. She, like practically every other Jew I knew, had the same latent urge to get in on the Christmas spirit. Maybe her dream wasn’t as grandiose as squatting inside a gingerbread house, but she had dreams nonetheless. This was a trend that had been sweeping the nation for some time: Jews buying Christmas trees and calling them Hanukkah Bushes. But not me. I had crossed that bridge once before, and it’s as brittle as the peanuts it’s paved with.
“Look, Bonnie,” I said. “I know Hanukkah isn’t quite Christmas, but we gotta make the best out of a bad situation. Instead of making my daughters feel like they’re missing out, let’s take a different path. Let’s teach them to mock the gentiles for over-commercializing what should be a sacred holiday, even though that’s exactly what we’d do in their situation.” My words held no sway over her.
“You’re the Jew who stole Christmas,” she sneered, but she was wrong. I had tried to steal Christmas, but couldn’t.
Today, I live in Los Angeles – a city where December temperatures can top eighty degrees. With houses decorated in faux icicles and styrofoam snowmen, winter seems no more real than flying reindeer. And yet people bravely do their best to recreate a Christmas that doesn’t exist. Do they do it for themselves or for their children? Or do they do it for the child that still lives deep within?
Someone once told me that the two saddest words in the English language were, “What party?” A close runner-up must be, “Oh, that party.” That’s what Christmas morning is for a Jewish family. It holds an unsettling stillness. When most of the population is inside unwrapping presents, we wander the vacant city just like Joseph and Mary, searching for a destination that will take us in. Usually, this means finding a Chinese restaurant. So that’s exactly what Cynthia and I did with our daughters on Christmas Day.
It’s strange to have a restaurant almost entirely to yourself. Even if you’re with someone, there’s a loneliness to it. A lack of belonging. At least that’s how I felt when our moo shu vegetables arrived. We sat at a window table, staring outside where not even a mouse was stirring. Closer to the door was an older couple who had grappled with a similar feeling, but ordered the noodles instead. For a moment, the woman and I made eye contact.
On any other day, we may have both looked away. But this was Christmas, and there was something special in the air. Even though we were strangers, I think we wanted to share that feeling of connection. Or at least acknowledge our sense of isolation. She gave me a smile that said, “Eh, whadda ya’ gonna do?” I shrugged and dipped my egg roll in duck sauce. What else could be done?
When our meal was over, I ordered a serving of mooncake. Not much, just a little sweetness to help enjoy the day. As I ushered my family out the door, I set it down at the woman’s table.
“Merry Jewish Christmas,” I said.
“Merry Jewish Christmas to you, too.”