It’s the last night of Chanukah, and I’m already singing Christmas carols. We had a heck of a Chanukah at the Schwartz-Goldberg residence. We invited friends to open presents the first and seventh nights. The kids played with them for approximately 12 minutes before they had to leave and head to bed. Not before singing “dreidel, dreidel, dreidel” as we lit the candles.
Ah yes. Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel. The token Chanukah song at any Christmas holiday concert. It’s a humiliating annual ritual. As tokens go, the dreidel song is about as dignified as Urkel. It’s not an intentional insult—we don’t have our own Silent Night (as there is seldom a silent night with us; we are a swarthy and chatty people). We’ve got Urkel, and we have to sing it, goddammit.
Chanukah is Christmas’s bitch.
Christmas trees are Jewish porn. We want them. We furtively glance at them in stores. Many of us tart up Chanukah and perform our annual “see, it’s FUN to be Jewish” shtick for the kids. Like mac ‘n cheese and masturbation, we want Christmas, but we aren’t supposed to admit it. One great thing about having a Not Entirely Jewish kid –even though her Catholic father and I divorced years ago- is that I can get a small Christmas tree. For her.
The inequality between Christmas and Chanukah is unavoidable. It’s a minor Jewish holiday commemorating a small force in ancient Israel defeating the Greeks. This victory preceded a run of bad luck for the Jews that lasted until the dawn of modern dentistry. For Christians, Christmas has the promise of hope for humanity. Christmas has Christ, who is a big deal.
As a kid, Jesus scared me. According to my elders, Jesus was Why They Hate Jews. I hated having to listen to Jesus songs in the mall. Why did they insist on shoving Christianity down my throat when all I wanted to do was look at glittery ornaments on Christmas trees?
Then I learned to sing the carols. Melodic, joyful, and sometimes haunting. And you sing them together. I was in the choir in high school. I had to sing the carols as music, I told my parents. When you sing carols at the nursing home, the old folks smile. The loneliest bubbe at the Hebrew Home doesn’t want to hear Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel. Bring some rugelach and a picture of anyone’s grandchild, already. Christmas music is different.
Incidentally, I’ve grown to like this Jesus, though I never found the divine in him or any other deity. I prefer Jesus to almost any leader today, though I wish Russ Feingold had his staying power. But that’s not why I love Christmas (and why Christians have a legitimate gripe with me and my kind). I love Christmas because it’s beautiful.
In all but my willingness to be explicit, I have so far not diverged much from the average American Jew. The sad truth is that I have far more baggage about Christmas—and it does not stow neatly in the overhead compartment or under the seat in front of you. Although some of us cop to wanting Christmas, my (Kosher) beef is that it was taken away from me.
Christmases at my grandmother’s house are the best memories I have from early childhood. Every December 23d we trekked out to Long Island to my mother’s parents. Grandma was born Jewish in Germany but converted to Catholicism during The War (a story for another day). Gaga, my grandfather, was a dyed-in-the-wool atheist born to northern Italian Catholics. Though our immediate family was Jewish (another, other day), we partook.
Everyone thinks that theirs is the best Christmas but they’re deluded. Ours was. On the 23d we’d buy a huge tree and decorate it. On the 24th, my birthday, I went to the fish market with my grandfather and picked ten kinds of seafood for a fish feast—an Italian tradition and my birthday dinner. Then I went to Fortunoff with my mother’s younger sister to select the birthday bling of my choice. That night, as we slept, my grandmother transformed her living room into wonderland. I still don’t know what she added, apart from presents, to make it glow.
My mother, her sisters, and I always got one matching gift—night gowns, gloves, sweaters. And my grandmother found amazing things. Back in the 70s, my dearies, you could not surf the web to find anything you wanted. My grandmother produced Italian and German confections out of nowhere; sought-after toys sold out in the tri-state area. This woman, who re-committed to Judaism and taught swimming until she died at 79 (another, other, other day), was magical.
After presents, a German-style breakfast, abundant with pork products (!) and my favorite hot chocolate. Writing it now I realize that this is just Christmas. But it was mine.
And it was marked with a touch of ambivalence. Grandma’s nativity scene was in the basement, on a bureau in a shadowy corner. I know that she assembled it with care, but it was nowhere near the main event. Even then, I understood the nativity to be mysteriously off limits. Jesus Was In It, for one thing. And my grandmother’s chosen faith—the one that my mother had rejected, was in it too. My grandmother’s choice was in it, and I knew that bothered my mother.
An aside to the Being Jewish is Fun parental set—nativities have cute animals in them. So does Easter. You need to do better than frogs, lice, and locusts.
I didn’t know that basement nativity presaged the end of Christmas for our family. When I was in fourth grade we moved to Baltimore. Our family’s focus shifted from the grandparents to Jewish relatives in our new community, and increasingly to involvement in a Modern Orthodox synagogue. Always important to my parents, their religion became the center of their world. Christmas had to go.
Perhaps because my mother felt that she had something to prove as a Jew from mixed origins, she went about the cultural cleansing with particular zeal. Christmas had to go. Halloween, while tolerated, was not as good as Purim (cuz it’s so much better. Duh).
Over the decades, she has acquired Sephardic cookbooks, adopted “family” recipes from a shtetl none of her ancestors ever inhabited, incorporated Yiddish into her vocabulary—she’s a native Italian speaker—and commanded everyone around her to be silent about the Whole Catholic Thing. It was Shameful. It was Done To Grandma. Her finale, before my grandfather died, was to “discover,” based upon sheer force of desire, that he was descended entirely from Jews expelled from Spain 500 years ago (another, other, other, other day).
We didn’t just have to give up Christmas. We had to pretend we never liked it—or even did it—to protect my mother from the sad truth of her mixed (rich, to me) heritage. Now my grandparents are dead. Such is the way of everyone but Jesus and Betty White. More difficult, for me, is the premeditated death of what they gave me.
Some of us covet Christmas. I mourn it.
And then, inexplicably, I burst into song while driving to the grocery store. Silent night, have yourself a merry little Christmas, whatever makes the old people smile. Songs that no ancestor of mine ever sang. Not so much in rejection of Chanukah, but accepting anything beautiful that comes my way.
And now, eggnog all around. That was difficult.