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 my 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 I could do was hunker down until January first, when Baby New Year would shove Baby Jesus out of the way. A baby fight, that’s what I was pinning my hopes on.
As a child, I recall going to the supermarket where “Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas” played on the loudspeaker. Oh, that heartbreakingly beautiful song. My people were already pre-disposed to depression, did we really need this as well? As I was pulled down the aisle by my mother, I watched as a chef with a penchant for cookie based architecture assemble a glorious gingerbread house that reached almost to the fluorescent bulbs that glowed so heavenly. I was absolutely amazed. 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 licking peppermints and sticking them 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. And where was she taking me? None other than that Jewish culinary destination known as the potato bin.
“I’m making latkes!” said my mother, as she carefully hand selected each bland, lifeless rock that would roll downhill into 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 best eaten while on the run.
“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 — sticking to it the way a chameleon’s tongue does to a fly on the wall. You could almost hear the ligaments in my eyeballs straining to remain in contact with it.
“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 took the opposite path. “You don’t want that Christmas shit. It’s all diabetes.” And we continued on our way.
I can’t blame her for removing me from all the Christmas temptation. Parents want to give their kids everything, and this was definitely something she couldn’t, despite all my pleading. Frosty the Snowman standing at the checkout aisle wasn’t making things 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.
“Is Frosty Christian?” I asked my mother.
“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.
To be honest, this whole Hanukkah thing needed a lot of rethinking. Part of the problem is that you couldn’t hype its arrival because it never fell on the same date. The Jewish calendar is lunar, not solar. 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.”
And the lore behind Hanukkah needed work. It was all about lamp oil that was supposed to last only one day, but by some miracle, burned for eight days. Is that really a miracle, or is there something else going on? When I was little, we had a container of orange juice that lasted two weeks full weeks. Every morning, I’d pour myself a glass, and the next day, the carton was somehow even more full. I couldn’t believe it! But after two weeks, I finally figured out why my Tropicana was as thin as a urine sample — my mother was just cutting it with water behind my back. But talking snowmen and flying reindeer… now that was a miracle!
The Christian kids at school used to mock us. They knew their ancestors had built a better holiday and they weren’t afraid to it in our faces with their pity. 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… or “Chanukah”… as the greatest holiday ever, and we couldn’t even agree on the spelling. As it stood, I’d have to admire the joy of 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 introduce us to culture, instead of taking us someplace good like Disney World. As we drove through the farmland, passing simple wooden barns and horse drawn buggies, my father noted how life in the Amish Country was about hard work, sacrifice and living without technology. This jab wasn’t lost on me, as I had been constantly nagging him to buy me an Atari. To the ignorant or desirably young, Atari was an early computer console where you could 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. Dad didn’t buy into any of that, and now I was forced to learn a lesson in deprivation.
“See that Amish man ploughing the field? 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. Wallpaper weeped off the walls and the carpeting felt thin and sticky. Yes, a fire roared in the lobby, but I can only imagine it was fueled by a mountain of state issued safety violations. Fortunately, whatever money they saved in sprinkler upgrades that could potentially save our lives, 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. The pleasure was insane.
On Christmas morning, we awoke to find fresh snowfall on the ground, just like the movies promised. I could’ve done a happily little dance in my feety pajamas, were I not so worried about my penis flopping out of the crotch fold. My sister and I quickly got dressed and raced downstairs to the Christmas tree, silently shouting, “Santa! Santa!” 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? Isn’t that why my parents sent me to Hebrew school every Sunday? Or was that just punishment for some forgotten sin?
“You go first,” I said to my sister, and she was gone in a flash — leaving the napkin she used to hold her donut still hovering in the air the way they do in cartoons. Apparently, she didn’t have the same reservations I did about deceiving transients dressed as fictional deities.
My mother nudged me to keep up with her. “Go on, before they’re all gone.”
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 said nothing, though. We were both keeping secrets.
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?
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 father 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 about to experience Christmas for the first time. 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 with each rip of the paper. And now just imagine my disappointment when I discovered what lied beneath. It was bargain rack board game that the hotel picked up at the thrift store. It was like Santa had known all along, and he knifed me right in the Jewish gut. I had betrayed my heritage by pretending to be Christian and for what? A lousy board game.
“What do you think?” said my mother, as I fell against the wall, clutching my stomach as I strained for my final words.
“I think… this sucks.”
“I told you to pick a big one,” she said, sipping the hot cocoa I asked her to hold.
I should’ve tossed that game right in the garbage, but I couldn’t. It was my sole Christmas present. It had to be good — it just had to be. If I hung onto it long enough, maybe it would transform itself. So I packed it into the back of our Volvo, and brought it home with me, where it taunted me from the bottom of my bookshelf for several years. Not once did I play it. 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.
And so, my desire to celebrate Christmas was completely quashed. It only resurfaced years later when my daughters were little. 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.”
“It’s got the word Christ in it, and the first three letters of 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. It’s Christian through and through. The kicker is, my mother-in-law is Jewish. She, like so many other Jews 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 visions nonetheless. This was a trend that had been sweeping my people 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 have to 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 scoffed, but she was wrong. I had tried to steal Christmas, but failed.
To this day, Christmas morning hots an unsettling still new for me. When most of the population is inside unwrapping presents and spreading good cheer, we Jews wander the vacant city just like Joseph and Mary, searching for a destination that will take us in. Usually, it’s 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, our hands resting on the cold, glass surface, 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. Even though we were strangers, I think we wanted to share a 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.”