ISTM #12: A Jew’s View of Christmas

[NOTE: I first posted this in December 2003 and have reposted it every December since, adding slight revisions now and then.]

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 covered by snow more often than not, and churches stood in almost every neighborhood with bell towers chiming all day long.

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 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.

Live Reindeer & Dropped Jaws

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 that dropped my jaw. There was a tree covered with tinsel, angels and blinking lights that was as tall as the adjacent Park Street Church  and brighter than the Golden Dome of the  state house across Beacon Street. 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 where we lived. More than once, my mother roasted a turkey on Christmas Day as aunts, uncles and cousins stuffed the house and then themselves. I remember noise, laughter and overly passionate arguments. 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 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 had to hide the fact that I was feeling  Christian envy. We Jewish kids had Chanukah — a word that could be spelled almost anyway we wished and still be right. We had gifts, and cholesterol-soaked latkas and with maybe a few slivers of chopped liver aside the turkeys, supposedly making it more of a Jewish event.

Dreidels, not Angels

Instead of Carols we sang Chanukah songs and played with toy tops called dreydels 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 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 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 lost.

But Zayde’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 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 Big Jackpot: their payoffs always eclipsed what we got in quality and quantity.

It depressed me 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 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 Lego tiles.

Faith-based Milk

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 tale of one night’s oil burning in a Jewish temple for eight nights seemed paltry. Big deal. Our most popular Chanukah 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,  “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 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 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.

Current events have shifted a few perception of Jews over the years. Israel’s strident and aggressive militancy have virtually eliminated perceptions of the 1950s when American Jewish kids were generally regarded as studious wimps and easy prey for schoolyard bullies.

Redefining Heroes

We live in times when heroes may be regarded less for their powers with boxing gloves or bats and more by their willingness to give to those in need, including those who, like Christ, find themselves homeless in cold weather, but in the case of this story that I revise and post every year at this time, that is all aside from the central point, a point that came to me back in 2003 when I had just begun to blog and posted this for the first time.

I was driving 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 with new tenants such as Facebook, a Home Depot, an Ikea, new low-income housing as well as a significant clean up of the streets where drug trafficking was so recently rampant.

But that had not yet happened in 2003, when I sat at a traffic light watching a packaged goods deal 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 74th Christmas and not one of them observed an Earth at peace. It was a great many Christmases ago when I first heard the words, 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.

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.

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.

Zeal vs. Humbug

Her zeal was at direct odds with my humbug attitude. I’ve never been able to explain the way I felt 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. This was an annual issue for us from 1989 until 2003 when I found myself staring at the Peace on Earth sign over the then dangerous streets of East Palo Alto.

That sign resurrected the real meaning of Christmas to me. 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.

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 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.

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