ISTM #33: A Jew’s View of Christmas (revised)


[NOTE: I first posted this in December 2003 and have reposted it every December since adding slight revisions now and then.] I hope you enjoy it in this season when we all may be a little ambivalent about anything called “joyous.”

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 ground was usually covered by snow, and churches were gathering places in almost every neighborhood: Chimes resonated from each bell tower from dawn until dusk.

I was a Jewish kid. I knew this day was not intended for me, but I just couldn’t help feeling the excitement. My parents, both born in Europe at a time when it was unfortunate to be simultaneously European and Jewish, were ambivalent.

They loved the decorations and saw my excitement, but still, they persisted in reminding me that it was not my day. We were merely observers of the joy in the world of other people.

And yet they helped me to observe it.

Live Reindeer & Dropped Jaws

After dark, we’d drive to gentile neighborhoods where we admired the lights, decorations, and even the 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.

Commons xmasIt was there, I saw my first live reindeer, a sight that dropped my jaw. There was a tree covered with tinsel, angels that stood as tall as the Park Street Church across the street: It’s blinking lights were brighter than the Golden Dome on the adjacent State House at the top of Beacon Hill.

For me, at that stage of my life, there was nothing more wondrous to behold in the whole wide world. As observers, our family seemed to absorb the Christian culture that pervaded our little world in Southern New England. More than once, my mother roasted a turkey on Christmas Day as aunts, uncles, cousins, and pets stuffed our house and their bellies. I remember the noise of laughter and passionate arguments about sports and politics. One uncle consistently drank too much, and another would invariably land on a chair 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, I was told. But as a child, this confused me: If Christmas was a day for us to observe from a distance, why was my house filled with relatives and gifts and feasts? And why did the working parents have a day off if it was not their holiday?

Okay, there were limits to the Christmas thing: We hung no stockings by our chimney with care; we inhaled no sweet fragrance from a holiday pine tree in our living room and placed no gifts under it: We had challah to eat but no holly to hang and we never, ever, called it Christmas: It was just ‘the Holiday.’

As a little boy, years before my Bar Mitzvah that would proclaim me a man at age 13, I found this all very confusing, this cultural fusion that denied there was ecumenism going on: I loved Christmas, celebrated it on that day, got gifts and yet had to deny that Christmas had anything to do it.

We Jewish kids were told we were celebrating Chanukah, but we seemed to always be doing it on Dec. 25. We had gifts, and latkas, not to mention the Jewish delicacy of chopped liver. But there, at the center of it all was this magnificent turkey: No matter what we called it at our table it was a Christmas Turkey in the eyes of the world.

We didn’t do everything the Christian kids did, but we had Jewish equivalents.

Dreidels, not Angels

DriedelInstead of Carols we sang Chanukah songs and played with toy tops called dreidels. 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 lawn and roof lights, not to mention talking animals and Christmas carols playing in shopping malls.

Christmas was everywhere: in the windows of homes and stores, on lawns in parks and even 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 Zayda, 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.

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.

But Zayda’s 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 traveled via flying reindeer, one of whom had a nose redder than my uncle who drank too much?

I liked getting a gift each of the eight days of Chanukkah, even if I mostly got necessities like socks and school clothes that I would get anyway.

But while we had eight days and my Christian pals had only one, their day seemed to be the jackpot: their payoffs always eclipsed what we got in quality and quantity.

SchwinnIt depressed me when we returned to Betsy B. Winslow Elementary school in early January where my Christian pals gleefully reported entire cornucopias, of Schwinn bikes, Lionel Trains, Flexible Flyer sleds, and American Flyer red wagons not to mention erector sets and chemistry kits that preceded Lego tiles that their descendants now enjoy.

Faith-based Milk

And what did these Christian kids have to do to reap all this loot? Just leave out some 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 chimneys I wondered why he never got hurt or sooty or burned by smoldering embers, or triggered burglar alarms, or if he peed from drinking all that milk.

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. My world was far smaller 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 Chanukah song was, “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,” which has the same melodic merit as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” which was dwindled by “Silent Night.” 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.

Judah McBut Chanukah 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 oppressive Roman occupiers. It was the only Jewish holiday that involved a military victory.

Times have changed. In the 1950s, Israelis were irrigating a desert, and concentration camp survivors were still straggling in to the one place on Earth where Jews were warmly welcomed.

In America, at that time the stereotyped Jewish male was a bit of a wimp. The furthest the American dream was expected to take him was into the fields of retailing and medicine.

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.

Many events have shifted perceptions of Jews over the years. Israel’s strident and aggressive militancy have virtually eliminated earlier perceptions of Jewish kids as studious wimps and easy prey for schoolyard bullies. The thought of them as military heroes just did not exist when I was in grade school.

Redefining Heroes

We live in a very different time today. Many of us still enjoy sports heroes who can swing a bat in a ballpark and at least in movies, military heroes still gain the support of most viewers.

But many of us now look at a new kind of hero one who gives to those in need and protects those unable to defend themselves. We would still rejoice in a Judah Maccabee capable of turning back powerful, well-equipped invaders so that an oppressed people may enjoy the same sort of freedom that everyone wants.

Pope FrancisI have always admired the story of Christ. Likewise, I admire religious leaders of all faiths who evangelize humility, giving, and peace. The current pope is a great example. The American religious right is not.

But I digress. My point is that I grew up ambivalent about Christmas and in 2003 when I originally wrote this piece, I was thinking about that, as I drove through what was then the sad city of East Palo Alto (EPA).

A few years back, EPA had boasted the highest murder rate in the country–outdoing Detroit, New York City and Oakland.

It has improved a great deal since then, with the gentrification of some housing, destruction of street gangs and drug overlords, and new corporate residents including Facebook, the Home Depot, Ikea, and more.

But that had not yet happened in 2003, when I sat in my car at a traffic light watching a transaction between a dude in a long leather coat and a kid on a bike, I saw a sign that reminded me about what I envied most about Christmas.

It hung in huge, slightly lopsided letters across University Avenue.

It said: “Peace on Earth.”

This year will be my 76th Christmas and not one of them has experienced peace on Earth. It has been a particularly ugly year with Covid-19 with the invading force being a lethal microbe and an anti-Christ occupying the American White House.

PeaceChristmas shopping is mostly online, and no parent would allow their kid to sit on Santa’s lap. I have seen no signs, nor have I heard anyone utter them: Peace on Earth seems to be more than we expect just now.

And yet, once again, they echo with me. It was a great many Christmases ago when I first heard someone say, “Peace on Earth”, and fewer Christmas ago when I came to understand the bigness of the concept and the power of the thought. Peace on Earth is much, much bigger than Maccabee kicking Roman butt.

Enter Paula Israel

In 1989, I met Paula–pictured above–who is now my wife. She had loved Christmas all her life and by the time I met her, my ambivalence toward Christmas as something to reject as commercial ballyhoo had reached full bloom. If I could have found one, I would have posted a sign declaring that the Grinch was right.

But Paula loved the planning and decorating; the gifting and wrapping and opening and the silliness of putting ribbons on her head; she loved the cooking and filling the house with unlikely assortments of people who somehow enjoyed each other. It had always been a big deal for her and her daughters Mindi and Melanie. Christmas was a source of great comfort and joy to her.

Her zeal was at direct odds with my humbug attitude. I’d never been able to explain the way I felt about Christmas in any way that made sense to her, and my presence in her life at the season she loved most was like a dart piercing her balloon.

I found myself mulling this over as I sat at a traffic light watching a blatantly obvious drug deal as a sign above it proclaimed Peace on Earth and trying to figure out Paula and Christmas.

That sign gave me one of those epiphanies that I so often read about but rarely experienced. It has allowed me to feel more of what Paula feels. The big thought of the day is about the hope and promise of goodwill for humanity, something we need more this year than at any point in the many years that I have lived.

There are now two things special about Christmas for me. The first is a big thought, a dream or illusion of peace and goodwill between Earth’s many inhabitants– it’s Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Confucians, and even Republicans–at least some of them.

I also hope that we can share at least the common goal of keeping the Earth a fit place for the human race to reside. In my travels, I’ve come to know people of many faiths and hues and I always marvel at how very much alike we are when we sit down and try to know each other. I find it in my social media activities where I meet so many people of diverse ethnic origins who share so many of my interests and passions.

Rekindling Hope

It may be a Christian day for you, but for me, it is a day of hope for humankind. It redoubles at times like these when hope seems out of reach for so many.

I may not pray, but I do hope. If you do pray for these issues, I hope they come true and I will be grateful if prayers bring peace to this very troubled planet.

My second thought is smaller and more personal. It’s about Paula and how she catches the season’s joy as if it were something contagious. Whatever the germ, I’ve caught it as I find myself looking forward to the planning, and decorating; the gifting, wrapping and opening–albeit without ribbons on my head. Monday our home will be filled with unlikely assortments of people and I already know it will work out just fine.

Happy holidays, whichever you choose to observe, and may the New Year bring all of us closer to peace on –and for–the Earth.