Sunday, December 6, 2015

How does a Jewish Girl Celebrate Christmas?

Carefully... very carefully.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it's a holiday for everyone. If you're in America, you are celebrating. In some respect you could call it the Freezing Fourth of July. I feel as patriotic, if not more so, in November than July. For one thing, the food is better.

Christmas is trickier. Whatever you celebrate (Channukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Pancha Ganapati) has some religious backstory. At its core, we all have a very-long end-of-year ritual involving presents, parties and decorations.

I can't speak for the other two, but Channukah is not the Jewish Christmas. When I was a kid there were few if any Channukah "tchotchkes". No banners, sparkles, Channukah wrapping paper, Channukah-centric toys and trinkets. We got menorah candles from the temple (really crappy but imported from Israel). We avoided anything resembling Christmas wrappings (and got pretty creative in the process).

Eight days? More like 8 minutes

Did I feel like I was missing something? You bet. One year I somehow convinced my mother we should put presents under a big sheet that she let me decorate with a giant Star of David (David, not Bethlehem).

Another time I was visiting my (liberal) aunt in Florida (long story but something to do with my parents' divorce). I convinced her to turn a little palm tree in her front yard into a "Channukah bush" and spent hours decorating it with tin-foil streamers and assorted flotsam and jetsam. I must have been a very persuasive child.

Does this seem like a sad story? It shouldn't. I love Christmas and have always celebrated it with others, just not in my own home. I'm the one you call to help decorate the tree. Better yet, I'll help undecorate it and tenderly nestle those cherished ornaments in their tissue paper cocoons. I send Christmas cards (still). I make sure they are generic wishes, although "Peace" these days seems an impossible dream.

At sixteen I started working for the Christmas season at Sterling Lindner Department Store. My post was in the toy department. I can still conjure up the potent fragrance of all those vinyl dolls in the stock room. One year I was a Santa's Helper. Play "Jingle Bell Rock", and I'm there again too, wrangling kids onto Santa's lap. No, I haven't seen "The Santaland Diaries"— yet. On my lunch hours I would volunteer to help wrap presents at the gift wrap station. The ladies were grateful, though they always barked at me for using too much ribbon.

The tree at Sterling Lindner

And friends! We visited the family of one of my father's co-workers every Christmas night. That family had boys, so I got to play with trains, erector sets and Lincoln Logs. Downside: one year Angel Hair (made of fiberglass) got into my underwear. A painful rash followed. 

I celebrated Christmas with office mates for years, had delightful "holiday" rituals with dear friends (I miss your eggnog you-know-who-you-are). "A Christmas Carol" is one of my favorite movies, and I never get tired of watching "A Christmas Story" (in part because it was filmed in Cleveland where I too pressed my nose against the glass at Higbee's Department Store).

There's still that Channukah/Christmas disconnect. This year Channukah begins at sundown on December 6 and will be history by the 14th. I've thoroughly accepted the fact that the two holidays will never be equal, but I embrace my role as an elf. Nobody asks them their religion or even if they have a green card. They're just busy helping Santa get the presents ready.

How may I elf you?

I will gift wrap your present with care at the Lovely Boutique Where I Work. I've a great cranberry/pumpkin bread that I pack up for gifts (tastes like fruitcake but don't tell anyone). We've put up our aluminum pole to join those who celebrate Festivus (a festival for the rest of us). We started a (gulp) Christmas Eve family tradition a few years ago, watching a Christmas movie and indulging in the worst possible junk food for one night only. Christmas Day we and our fellow tribesmen used to be the only ones in the movie theaters and the Chinese restaurants. Now the best movies open Christmas Day, and you need reservations for the Chinese restaurant. This year, thanks to a new daughter-in-law, we've been invited to a family celebration. And family is what it's all about.


  1. Thanksgiving has become the stepchild of holidays, the middle child wedged in between Halloween and Christmas. That's probably because it hasn't been commercialized as much. I enjoyed reading about your holiday experiences through the years and especially your elf outfit. It's adorable!

  2. Isn't it nice that Thanksgiving hasn't been overly commercialized? If you don't count the Macy's Day Parade (as we used to call it) and butter shaped like turkeys.