I never understood why when I was growing up we didn’t hang Christmas lights outside our home. It wasn’t like we were the only Jews not doing it. There were plenty of us. When I was six years old, my mother married a Lutheran man who was the superintendent of a Jewish cemetery. The perks included lodging on the grounds. We moved out of my mom’s post-divorce New York City slum existence and headed for the rolling hills of Queens. I was relieved that gone were the flying roaches and the garbage odors. It was the 1960’s and we became the all American family, mother, non-Jewish stepfather, sister, stepsiblings, dog, cat and me, living in a stone building surrounded by tombstones. Silent Night was pretty much the theme song, except for when Stepfather played his favorite Bing Crosby croon tune, “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas.”
Throughout the rest of the year, blending was much easier. One hundred acres, mixed with mausoleums, bordering the Interboro Parkway and Forest Park, movie scenes would be filmed, I marched to “It’s A Grand Ole Flag” and my dog got lost ending up in the wrong cemetery. I learned to ride a two wheeler and to crack up Mom’s car. I, also, became afraid of sledding down icy slopes and of the darkness. That’s when I imagined that Barnabas Collins from “Dark Shadows” was coming after me. Today, I, alternately, fear and am fascinated by the Goth world and always say, “Quiet is for when you’re dead.” Remembering the mausoleum door that was open with the casket set out, I tell anyone who will listen, “I don’t do cemeteries.” Not much for the sounds of silence, street lights and honking horns are a comfort to me. I’m no fun, either, at funerals, always attempting to skip them and when I can’t I pop a xanax right before so I‘m not a sobbing mess like some of the people I noticed when I was a little girl.
The bright and blinking Christmas lights clashed horribly with the quiet of a cemetery night on the outside. Surrounded by headstones, we decorated our home for Chanukah and Christmas, only indoors, hidden away like a bad case of an STD. A generation after the Holocaust, in a German neighborhood, the menorah was lit at the kitchen table. After latkes, we exchanged boxes of Barton’s chocolates. The holiday cards were hung on the stair railing. The holly scent from the candles made my nose itch. And the Christmas cookies my mother baked were never safely hidden in the freezer. An artificial tree that was hidden away year round was brought out in boxes. The tall green monster was put together like a giant tinker toy. My Jewish relatives helped decorate it, with Stepfather placing the angel on top. But, like a dirty secret, there was never a Season’s Greeting’s sign scotch taped to our front door.
Although we played dreidel, ate chocolate macaroons in the spring and argued over going to Sunday School, we celebrated Christmas for my stepfather and his daughters, and for Santa. After a late night church service and just before I would go to sleep, I’d leave cookies and carrot sticks for Santa and his reindeer. He’d have to find his own drink because I was sure like me he just couldn’t stand the sour taste of milk. Even after one year finding Santa’s stash of presents in the attic, I kept the tradition going afraid if I let on I wouldn’t get the extra toys. Today, the idea of sitting on a mall Santa’s lap and asking for Elmo’s and video games is creepy to me but back then it was all about a miracle on Myrtle Avenue for one little kid.
Every December 24th, instead of playing with my Barbie dolls, I rearranged the little barn, the biblical figures and the cradle underneath the tree. The donkey, the ox and the shepherds were placed in different spots, sometimes pretend running through tinsel. The baby was gently tucked away. When Stepfather passed away, his daughters inherited my beloved December toy because they had grown up with the tradition. I still, though, have the memories.
My favorite holiday cartoon was, “The Little Drummer Boy.” Like the show’s bad boy, I wanted to be a trill gangsta in the drama of the well respected. He was awesome and I loved the “pa rum pum pum pum.” Like Rocker Dude, all 35 pounds of me felt alone. He thought he had nothing to give a newborn king. But, the drummer boy found his gift of himself was just as worthy as the kings and their myrrh. I, too, imagined rejection, mine by the kids at school for coming from a mixed marriage family who lived with the dead. I thought the trappings of my life weren’t what society might’ve deemed high end. What I didn’t know was my jizz was like their jazz. They, also, had problems. The last chapter of the flick was a high five, shout out feel good moment of approval for the drummer boy. He was accepted for himself. I waited for my affirmation.
And every year, after we drove around the neighborhood to look at the green and red bulbs, the Santa’s and snowmen, I asked my mother why couldn’t we hang lights outside our home, like the Christian kids at school did. She would explain it was just not something we did, as Jews. Mom took the rap. It had nothing at all to do with being Jewish. Today, I see pretty blue lights outside homes displaying menorahs. It’s just I never visualized how our home, one block into a cemetery with Jewish stars amid some distant cousins buried there, would appear to the small community we lived in if there was a monster wreath all lit up with a Santa smiling back at everyone. It wouldn’t have been a Hallmark Griswold family moment. I didn’t get how mourners would feel at a funeral if they heard a “Ho Ho Ho” every time we opened and closed our front door. I was only a little girl who would grow up to be a Hebrew School teacher.