As a Jew, I always felt left out on Christmas. Sure we had Chanukah! Chanukah, Shmanukah!
Mom would remind us every year, “The Goyem (non Jews) only have one day to celebrate. We have 8!”
Every night we would gather around the dinette table in the kitchen as Mom lit the candles and then, hearts in our throats, we would wait for her to dole out our gifts. One by one they would come; lead balloons plunging our hearts right into the toilet. A hair brush, a bottle of shampoo, hand lotion, these were, you know, things Mom’s are supposed to give you, but NOT on Chanukah!
After every 4th or 5th horrible gift Mom would let loose with a real one. A Barbie doll for my sister, a Tonka Truck for my brother. I was the queen of the tomboys and wanted the GI Joe Action figure or The Big Jim action figure. Mom finally relented after years of watching me use the Barbie dolls as road kill for my brother’s Tonka trucks and gave me Big Jim the first night of Chanukah and GI Joe on the last.
The problem was that Mom never bought anything that was not on sale. Paying for full price for something was completely un-Kosher! This wouldn’t have bothered me much if it weren’t for the fact that on sale, often meant, “damaged goods.” The best thing about the “Big Jim” doll was that this muscular boy was supposed to Karate chop through wood, through all sorts of things. You would push the button on his back and “Wham” karate chop. When you pushed the back of my damaged Jim, all he did was twitch. So instead of getting a super hero I got a neurotic. Perfect! What could be more Jewish than neurosis? MY GI Joe came sans his army uniform. I got a naked GI Joe. I wrapped him in a handkerchief. In his makeshift rope, he looked more like Jesus than Joe.
By the time the 8 days of shampoo and body lotion was over, the whole town was lit up for Christmas. So beautiful lights and Christmas trees in every window! Nobody seemed to be grumpy! Every one smiled, every one said Merry Christmas. My friends talked about sipping hot cider as they watched Christmas specials on TV on Christmas Eve and then opening their gifts in the morning. Beautiful brand new gifts in brand new wrapping paper (not the old newspaper mom used) were waiting for them under the twinkling Christmas tree!
“Can’t we have Christmas too? “I begged my mother.
“That’s GOYISH!” mom screamed in horror, “Next thing you’ll be asking to eat ham. Why not stick another knife in your mother’s heart?!”
After I grew up, I contented myself to do what Jews do on Christmas. We go to Chinese restaurants, (the only thing open). We go to the movies. We stay home and watch “March of the Wooden Soldiers.” We cry. And then I started to do something better. Celebrate Christmas. Most of my friends were Christian. Why not join them? Glorious Christmas Eve suppers at Anne Marie’s house sipping spiked apple cider around the fire, watching “It’s a wonderful life” and eating apple pie with my BF Trey. It was all mine! I felt like I’d been given the VIP ticket to the party I’d been missing my whole life!
Then, 10 years ago I hit the holy grail of Christmas. I started going out with an Italian Catholic, born and raised in Brooklyn. “My family is your family,” Lydia explained as we drove to her sister V’s house for Christmas. I’ve had Christmas dinners before, but this was my first Italian Christmas dinner. It’s like Uber Christmas. There was her sister, her other sister, their husbands, kids, grand kids, cousins, grand parents, aunts, uncles. There must have been 35 people there! My family’s idea of a huge dinner was when we invited Bob the handyman to join us for day-old goulash. With Bob we were six.
Everyone brought something; manicotti, meatballs, escarole, three kinds of pasta, two kinds of sauce, chicken cutlets for Pete who doesn’t eat red meat, a huge prime rib, all sorts of anti-pasto and for me, for just me, a special bowl of gluten free pasta. “Lyd told me you can’t eat gluten. I hope this is okay.” V said and I nearly cried with joy.
There were 35 hugs and kisses hello and 35 hugs and kisses good-bye and every one of them genuine. After eating enough food to feed Pittsburgh I collapsed onto the easy chair and Lyd’s 4-year- old twin nieces climbed onto my lap. “Tell us another story!” they squealed. “Do you want to hear the one about the alligator who almost bit my tushy off?” “YESSSS!” they squealed in delight.
Mom I love you, (wherever you are), but you got it wrong. You don’t have to be Christian to celebrate Christmas. Okay yes, there is the Jesus stuff, but you know, besides that, it’s a time to celebrate peace, love and joy. This Jew is loving me some Christmas joy! And.. um.. Penne in red sauce. YUM!
** A little side-note here. Sadly, like for many of us, the big extended family extravaganza is postponed this year due to the Pandemic. But next year! Dreidels and Egg nog here I come.