Jewish Christmas Memories: Is that an oxymoron?

It’s Christmastime … a season that basically starts the day after Labor Day according to most retailers.  Everyone is so overwhelmed and overwrought trying to prepare for that One Ultimate Day, that the enjoyment has pretty much been sucked right out of it. Sorta like planning a big wedding — six months of preparation for six hours of enjoyment, most of which you don’t remember afterwards anyway (thank Sony for wedding videos!)

So why is it I love this time of year so much?  Maybe it was my “deprived” upbringing.

I grew up a Jewish kid in a very Jewish neighborhood on the near-North side of Chicago. (Not true north, just near-north. Honestly, that’s how it’s done in Chicago!)  How Jewish?  On Saturdays in the summer, when the oppressive heat forced the temple directly across the street from our apartment building to leave open the sanctuary doors, we could hear the singing of the cantor and the prayers of the men clear as a bell up on the 3rd floor where we lived.  On the High Holy Days, the grammar school up the block became a ghost town, which of course meant every Jewish kid on the block wanted to go that day so we could have the run of the school!  Jewish mothers being what they are, that never happened.  So Christmas shouldn’t have been a big deal for us.

Shouldn’t have been; but it was. At least for me.

I always loved the sights and sounds and smells of Christmas. The color, the music, the food and festivity were intoxicating, most probably because they were taboo.   We weren’t allowed to have a Christmas tree; and according to my mother, there was no such thing as a Chanukah bush.  A burning bush, maybe.  But a Chanukah bush?  No. So naturally, I couldn’t wait until my best not-Jewish friend’s parents brought theirs home every December.

The Netters lived in a two-story house one block over, with a huge front porch and vaulted ceilings.  To me, being a very small person, their tree was this towering green behemoth that smelled so wonderful and looked so beautiful.  It’s funny, but the clearest memory I have of those times is putting tinsel on the tree.  Tinsel was a big deal back then, really wonderful stuff that was thin, shimmery and spaghetti-like; not the stiff, unwieldy, inelegant junk they sell today.   You could lay it delicately, strand-by-strand, or toss it up in handfuls and watch it catch a branch and fall gently into place.  We, of course, opted for the hurl-a-handful method, throwing the tinsel as high as we could onto the tree.  When we were done, the bottom half of the tree was glorious!  The upper part of  the tree we left to the grown-ups, doubting they could ever match our tree-trimming prowess.

It wasn’t much, just one afternoon of “doing Christmas”, but for me it filled an empty place in my holiday soul.  That, and going downtown with my great aunt to see the magical mechanized Christmas displays in the windows of Marshall Fields. They were truly amazing!  To a little girl with a hungry imagination, it was a tantalizing taste of  Winter Wonderland.  Oh, and there are family photos, somewhere, of me and my brother sitting on some department store Santa’s lap.  So my parents weren’t total scrooges.  In fact, even though we had a fake fireplace with no logs, no flue and no chimney , we still left cookies and milk every Christmas Eve and Santa somehow managed to fill our fake hearth with gifts every Christmas morning.  (Since Santa is magical, apparently picking front door locks was a piece of cake – remember this was Chicago!)  So we did get a semblance of the holiday, but only just a semblance.

Of course, we did have Chanukah, which according to our  Christian friends means we had it made in the shade.  I mean, eight days of presents sounded just awesome!   The dirty little secret that every Jewish kid knows, however, is that you only got one “real” gift — something substantial that you could ride or wear or play with, on the last night.  In the seven nights leading up to that you either got pennies which even then didn’t get you very far; or a plastic dreidel which you never understood how to use anyway; or stale chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil … the famous Chanukah gelt – which was neither spendable nor edible.   Somehow, getting a ton of cool gifts all on one night sounded a whole lot better to us than seven nights of “Jewish water torture” just to get to that one night of one something of kid value.  But then, that is the traditional method of Jewish child rearing:  Always leave ’em wanting more! Or, in my dad’s Jewish-zen philosophy, “If something is worth having, it’s worth waiting for.”  Yeah, like a seven-year-old has that kind of patience!

I dunno, maybe it develops character to be a Jewish kid at Christmas time.  Maybe.  But for me, all it did was engender an even greater love for all things Yuletide.

Christmas carols?  Know them all and will sing them at the drop of an elf’s hat. Christmas food?  I may be the only person on the planet who actually likes fruitcake!  Christmas decorations?  By the second week of December our condo looks like Santa’s workshop exploded.  A Christmas tree?  Nothing shorter than 7 feet, thank you, and 8 feet is better!   Ornaments by the hundreds. Lights by the thousands.  Santas of every shape, size, color and nationality along with snowmen, reindeer and my husband’s favorite nativity scene.  Oh, did I mention I married a man who is Catholic?  Comes in pretty handy this time of the year!  Were it not for the lovely menorah sitting prominently on the fireplace mantle, you wouldn’t know a Jewish person lived in our house at all!  But I do.

In reality, I love both holidays.  Chanukah holds its own happy memories.  Making latkes with my grandmother, hand-shredding the cooked potatoes and leaving more than a few skin cells from scraped knuckles in the mix.  Frying up the pancakes until they’re crisp, then dipping them hot in cold, tart sour cream – yum!  Singing the prayer over the candles each night with my dad and kid brother, watching the wicks catch and the flames start to dance, one after another. Eating the stale chocolate gelt — hey, chocolate is chocolate (and remember, I like fruitcake!)   And the eighth night really was the best.  Grandparents doting on us, the incredible smells from the kitchen and the anticipation of the final gift.  Don’t get me wrong, it was not bad being a Jewish kid at Christmas, not at all.  But the grass is always greener, as they say.

And at this time of year, it’s redder and greener!

So to one and all, whether you celebrate Christmas, or Chanukah, or both, or nothing at all, take some time to create your own holiday memories.

‘Tis the Season!

One Response to “Jewish Christmas Memories: Is that an oxymoron?”

  1. RetiredLady Says:

    Hi Alpha! I just read your blog. I too love Christmas! As a kid, I didn’t have a Jewish religious education, but we still lit Chanukah candles. One of my Uncles was more into Judaism than any of us, and celebrated all the holidays, but strange as it was, they were the ones who always had a Christmas tree, and all of us exchanged gifts. It was fun going from family house to family house, spending time with family, eating delicious latkes and candy canes, and of course, getting wonderful presents. Since our family is like the League of Nations, we still celebrate everything. Living in LA, I miss being with my cousins at this time of year, when the air on the east coast smells crisp and different, it’s cold and sometimes snowy. But even now, in my home, you’ll find my menorah, Chanukah bears and my Christmas tree with all the trimmings. I love the Christmas songs as you do, and given my meager musical talents, can sing and play them on my instruments. Happy Winter Holidays to you and yours.

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