My parents have always been for the most part caring, compassionate, and relatively non-abusive, but there was one notable episode in my childhood so shocking, so inhumane, that people are often rendered speechless when I gather the inner strength to discuss it.  Sensitive readers may want to stop here.  Because what happened was: My parents took away Christmas.

That’s right.  Up until I was in second grade, we were one of those happily confused inter-faith families, or as the terminology in our largely Jewish Chicago suburb had it, “Both.”  My brother and I merrily celebrated a liturgically incoherent mess of holidays.  We had no problem with a brightly colored Easter egg nesting on the Passover seder plate.* Christmas tree and Hanukkah menorah peacefully coexisted, a harmonious fire hazard.  None of this troubled us.  We were psyched, as all self-respecting gift-greedy children would be.

And then it happened.  My mother converted.  To Judaism.  Our family joined a synagogue and enrolled my brother and me in Hebrew school.  Hebrew school! Sundays, plus Tuesdays and Thursdays after real school!  Just what kids want: more school, less Santa.

You can tout the “eight nights of celebration” angle all you want, but it is a fact held self-evident by Jewish children everywhere that there is nothing like Christmas.  Nothing like a fragrant tree decked in glittering ornaments, strung with tinsel and topped with a star, sparkly as the cosmos on a clear winter night in some storybook woodland scene.  Nothing like the fairy lands of shop windows, or street gangs of carolers in sweaters and fur muffs, or the zany secular mythology of the North Pole and elves and reindeer.  The Nutcracker and The Island of Misfit Toys and Frosty the Snowman.  Judy Garland singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.  Elvis singing Blue Christmas.  Ham pink as a newborn baby; spiced grenades of clove-studded oranges studded with cloves; egg nog, nectar of the goys.  Twinkle lights clogging gutters like accumulations of luminescent leaf mulch.  Padding down the stairs in footie pajamas (this has always been a key element of my Christmas fantasy, though never in my life have I lived in a house with an upstairs) to a wonderland of stuffed stockings like felted sausages hanging from the mantel and a pile of presents gathered beneath the tree as cozily as boxy woodland creatures seeking shelter from a snowstorm. Let’s face it.  Christmas is amazing.

My theory is that it is because I was given a taste of this superior mid-winter festival of lights, only to have it brutally taken away at around 7 or 8, arguably the age when Christmas is the greatest, that I am now so obsessed with it.  I love it.  Luckily for me, I married a gentile, who I make carry home a slightly-oversized-spruce from the stand in front of the CVS every December.  We listen to Christmas music and trim the tree and then I curse while digging knobs of wax from the Hanukah menorah. I watch It’s a Wonderful Life at least once a year – at least – and weep every time.   I have done crazy things in the name of Christmas.  I have gone to the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular.  My husband and I went with another “mixed” couple – she is Christian, her husband is Jewish and of course loves Christmas as much as I do.  The Jewish husband and I sat with goofy grins frozen on our faces all the way through the Rockettes’ toy soldier number, the Nutcracker suite and the ice skaters and the 3-D flying Santa.  Children in the audience were not half as amused as we.  Then, suddenly, at the somewhat-less-than-spectacular end of the show, there is this strange number involving robed nomads, live animals, and…baby Jesus in the manger?

The Jewish husband leaned over to me and said, grimly, “We’ve been tricked.”  I have to admit, this whole “reason for the season” finale was sort of a buzzkill.  I felt faint with guilt, and looked around sheepishly, as if the Congregation Solel choir director Roz Epstein were about to leap out of the orchestra pit in order to lecture me on the persecuted Jews in Russia, or the brave Maccabee children, or worst of all, the H-word.  Then we visited the tree at Rockefeller Center – CHRISTMAS!! – and stopped at the Edison for matzoh ball soup and latkes.

Now I have a child of my own, and I am looking forward to raising her in the same cross-cultural, multi-region, theologically-nonsensical way I was almost raised.  Kids in New York don’t need religion anyway, do they?  Aren’t they all sort of intellectually inclined, automatically agnostic and slightly Jewy by default?  Perhaps we’ll celebrate Purim with a fat hamentaschen from a Hispanic-owned Manhattan deli (why DO they always have hamentaschen anyway?).  Surely we’ll take her to see the huge Menorah being lighted via forklift in Central Park.  But no matter what else may happen over the course of her childhood, even if her irreligious parents turn to Allah or Buddha or Scientology, even if her most fervent desire is to celebrate Kwanzaa, even if she should spontaneously become a devout Hasid, that little girl is having Christmas.  Whether she wants to or not.

*I know, I know, this never really happened. Stop freaking out, Dad.

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AMY SHEARN is the author of the novel How Far Is the Ocean from Here. She lives in Brooklyn with a husband, a baby, and a dog. Visit her online at amyshearn.com.

33 responses to “A Lonely Jew on Christmas”

  1. ‘The Jewish husband leaned over to me and said, grimly, “We’ve been tricked.” ‘

    Brilliant.

    We only got threatened with Christmas and birthdays being cancelled. We were too young to realise that our parents just didn’t have the manpower to make that stick.

  2. Don Mitchell says:

    Just as funny and on the mark on paper as at the reading, Amy.

    My son and daughter-in-law are still laughing about it — right now, even as I type this, they are at a Hanukah party. And in 10 days they’ll be at our house in Hawai’i and we’ll have a Penal Christmas Tree there.

  3. The Edison is, hands down, the best matzoh ball soup in town, but usually I order it with a side of Kasha Varnishkas – never tried the latkes.

    Yes, Amy. This reads just as good as it sounds! (But having it read live and in person was the bees’ knees!)

    Happy Merry Christmaskwanzakkah! Baruch Atah Adanoi Elohenu and Amen, yo!

    • Amy Shearn says:

      I will have to try those next time I’m there, which will be never since I don’t work in Times Square anymore and so why would I be anywhere near there. Also, thanks!

  4. my dad converted to judaism when i was 7…in 1980 i believe…the night dallas revealed who shot jr (my mom, a huge fan and non-owner of any recordation devices, almost didn’t go to services that friday night)

    i attribute a lot of my issues to the fact i had santa/christmas yanked away after my 7th bday

    good stuff

  5. Oh Amy… I am in LOVE with this… you made my cheeks hurt from laughter last night! So great to meet you…. favorite phrase: egg nog, nectar of the goys! Oy to the Vey as my very Italian nona used to say whenever something defied a word in her Italian – English vocabulary!

  6. Funny and informative – Having grown up in Scotland I’ve never known any Jews and never imagined a life without Christmas. Thanks for this awesome post!

    • Amy Shearn says:

      Are there really no Jews in Scotland? How sad for you! Who runs your media and worries about things? Are there bagels in Scotland? I did live in Minnesota for a while, where there are very few Jews. People were constantly asking me how I got my hair to curl. It was actually a little disturbing.

      • There are remarkably few Jews in Scotland, but we do have lots of bagels.

        I now live in Korea, where there are apparently twelve Jews. That’s right, twelve. And by god they keep tabs on them – this is one anti-semitic country. They have several Nazi bars in Seoul and none of my co-workers would talk to me when I first came here because I have a big nose and curly hair. People come up to me on the street and ask, “Peomeo?” (That’s how Koreans pronounce “perm”…) This happens once or twice a week…

  7. Rob Bloom says:

    This was awesome, Amy.

    Incidentally, ever tried washing down a black and white cookie with some egg nog? Delightful.

  8. Heh. Nice. It really does read as well as it sounds. The experience, and hearing you read it, really did make it richer; I could totally hear not just your pauses and your inflections but the smile through your voice and your occasional chuckle.

    Really great piece.

    Also? Loved the footnote. Rad.

  9. Amanda says:

    “Jewy.” Always funny, Shearn.

  10. Don says:

    I hope you will all recall the song, “Be Kind to your parents, though they don’t deserve.”

    Merry Solstice one and all.

  11. Nobody has ever explained to me what egg nog is. Brits don’t know, Americans think I’m joking. Seriously, it’s a hot drink made with eggs? It sounds absolutely revolting.

  12. Marni Grossman says:

    Amy- I’m always so excited to read a piece from you. A Hanukah (yeah, I said it) miracle! As always, you’re absolutely hilarious.

    I was straight-up Jewish. Both sides and straight on down to the over-large nose on my face. And because Christmas is so undeniably alluring, I always made a point of looking down on it. Santa? Bullshit. What kind of parent allows their child to sit on a stranger’s lap? Lights? Total waste of electricity. Eggnog? I’ll take some Dr. Browns, thanks.

    Just call me Mr. Grinch.

    *To be fair, I take a great deal of pleasure in my one Christmas-related tradition: a Thanksgiving viewing of “Home Alone.” This year, my mom actually cried.

  13. Bill Schutze says:

    Christmas is tricky. Try to find Jews and Agnostics and Gnostics (me) who like Chinese food. You’d be amazed at how soothing it is to go out and have Chinese on Christmas day. (Fish at midnight Christmas Eve with Italo-Americans is also very nice, as long as they don’t expect you to go to Mass later.) There are satisfying alternatives!

  14. Bill Schutze says:

    Go out and eat Chinese on Christmas day. You’ll like it!

  15. D.R. Haney says:

    Hey, Amy, I just wanted to say that I watched your reading of this piece on TNB, and it was really delightful. You have a very charming way about you, and the audience seemed (since it could only be heard) to be eating out of the palm of your hand. Well done.

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