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.