Wife Paula, dog Brewster & some bearded guy.
[NOTE: I first posted this in December 2003 and have reposted it every December since adding slight revisions now and then. This year, changing times have caused me to make more changes than ever before.]
I grew up in the 1950s in New Bedford, Mass., a working-class and overwhelmingly Christian city. Christmas was the biggest day of the year. Schools closed and parents enjoyed rare paid days off. The grounds were covered by snow more often than not: Churches stood in almost every neighborhood and bell towers would chime all day long.
I was a Jewish kid and I knew this day was not for me, But, I just couldn’t help feel the excitement. My parents, who were born in Europe at a time when it was unfortunate to be simultaneously European and Jewish, were ambivalent. They loved the decorations and saw the excitement in me, their younger son, but still, they persisted in reminding me that it was not my day. We were merely observers of the joy to other people’s worlds. And yet they helped me observe it in many ways.
We would drive to gentile neighborhoods where we admired the lights, decorations and even manger scenes. On good years, we would journey 60 miles to Boston, a two-hour drive to see the magnificent holiday display on Boston Common. It was there, I saw my first live reindeer, a sight the dropped my jaw each time. There was a tree covered with tinsel, angels and blinking lights that was as tall as the tower surrounding the city park and brighter than the Golden Dome of the adjacent state house. For me, at the stage of my life, there was nothing more wondrous to behold in the whole wide world–nothing at all.
As, observers our family culture seemed to absorb the Christian culture that pervaded where we lived. More than once, my mother roasted a turkey on Christmas Day and aunts, uncles and cousins stuffed the house in similar fashion. I remember noise, laughter and more than one occasional argument. One uncle consistently drank too much and another would invariably land on a chair as overstuffed as he was and snore with a resonance that made the overhead light vibrate.
These events were not held on Chanukah but on Christmas Day. This was because of the paid days off. But as a child this confused me, if Christmas was a day to be observed from a distance, why was my house filled with relatives and gifts and feasts? okay, there were limits: There were no stockings hung by our chimney with care, no sweet smell of pine trees in our living room: We had chalah to eat but no holly to hang and we never, ever called it Christmas. Instead it was just the “Holiday.”
It was all so very confusing this cultural fusion without admitting that there was ecumenism going on. I also harbored Christian envy. We Jewish kids celebrated Chanukah, a word that could be spelled almost any way we wished and still get right. We had gifts, and devoured cholesterol-soaked latkas and maybe a few slivers of chopped liver with our holiday turkeys, making it a more Jewish event.
Instead of Carols we sang Chanukah songs and played with toy tops called dreidels and it was fun. The American name for our holiday was the Festival of Lights, which would have been pretty cool except that our lights paled in the shadow of all that Christmas glitter of tinsel and bright blinking lights and talking animals and absolute ubiquity. Christmas was everywhere: in the windows of homes and stores, on lawns in parks and even on rooftops. Yes, it was in the schools and no one thought of objecting at that time. Then there was the Santa Claus factor.
When I knew my grandfather, or Zayde he was already an old man with white hair. He usually had a somber expression until he saw me and his face lit up. I looked forward to seeing him around Chanukah because he would reward me with a shiny new silver dollar, which he called Chanukah gelt, in the form of a silver dollar. A dollar was big-time loot for an American kid in the middle 1950s, and I strongly resisted parental urges to put it into my savings account for college. Sometimes, I won and sometimes I did not.
Claus and the Christian Kids
But Zayde gelt wasn’t the main event. How could my grandfather ever compete with that other white-haired old guy, the one in the red suit who employed a bevy of toy-making elves, and travelled via flying reindeer?
I liked getting a gift each of the eight days of Hanukkah, even if most were only socks and clothing that I would have gotten anyway. But while my Christian friends had but a single day, theirs seemed to be the the lottery’s Big Jackpot: the payoffs always eclipsed what we got in quality if not also in quantity.
It depressed my when the holiday recess ended in early January and I returned to Betsy B. Winslow Elementary School, to be subjected to glee-filled reports of my Christian friends who had awakened Dec. 25 to find living rooms filled like like cornucopias, overflowing with such great stuff as Schwinn bikes, Lionel Trains, Flexible Flyer wooden sleds and American Flyer red wagons not to mention Erector Sets that preceded and I still prefer to Lego sets.
And what did these Christians kids have to do to reap all this loot? Just leave out same faith-based milk and cookies for some strange guy named Santa Claus.
I wondered about this Claus guy. He looked too fat to slide down the chimneys he allegedly used for entry. I wondered why he never got hurt or sooty or burned by smoldering embers, but mostly I wondered why he liked those Christian kids more than us Jewish kids. I would have wondered also about Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist kids as well, but at the time I did not know any and my world was smaller then than it is now.
There was more to this Christmas issue than just Santa’s discriminatory practices. There were the tales of talking animals and wise men, and all sorts of miracles involving a baby born in a barn who was the son of God. Compared to that Chanukah’s tale of one night’s oil burning in a Jewish temple for eight nights seemed pretty paltry. Big deal. Our most popular Hanukkah song was, “Dreydle, Dreydle, Dreydle,” which has the same melodic merit as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Not quite on par with “Silent Night,” “First Noel” or even, for that matter, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” We had no Mormon Tabernacle Choir, no TV special with Perry Como crooning “Ave Maria.“ We never dashed through the snow, laughing even part of the way.
But Hanukkah had one special part for a Jewish kid in that era– latent machismo. The holiday story was about how Judah Maccabee had led a successful guerrilla war against Roman occupiers, making himself a central figure in the whole Chanukah tale. At a time when the stereotyped Jewish male was a bit of a wimp, Maccabee made me proud. He was our Iron Man, our Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, our Jackie Robinson. He was Jewish, tough and if you didn’t like it, he could kick your butt.