Jews and Christmas

Illustration 1950's vintage children at Xmas time

Like many American Jews, I secretly covet Christmas.

Though taught in the Ten Commandments not to covet thy neighbors wife, there was no explicit directive to coveting thy neighbors holiday.

Holiday cheer for some Jews also includes a touch o’ holiday envy. This has nothing to do with not fully embracing my own cherished Jewish traditions of Hanukkah.

With its pervasive display of merriment, Christmas can feel to outsiders like the twinkling embodiment of the American Dream.

One in which we are left out in the cold.

vintage image Christmas decorations

Perpetual observers of this ultimate national celebration, we are never full participants. As though peeking through a picture window looking in at the Norman Rockwell tableau’s of happy gentile families gaily decorating their Christmas trees with glitzy shimmering lights and cherished heirloom ornaments taken out of hibernation, we could enjoy it from the sidelines.

 

Vintage illustration family at Christma time decorating tree

This glittering part of American life winking at us seductively from neighbor’s homes, shop windows, and the mass media always seemed just outside my grasp. It is a constant reminder we are a minority here.

When it comes to Christmas, Jews are the Other. Except when we are not.

The truth is, in my pre-school years, my Jewish family did celebrate Christmas.

Sort of.

Christmas Celebration

vintage Housewife decorating Xmas table

It helped that my paternal grandfather, Papa Moishe was born on December 25th just like Jesus another Jewish boychik.  In Dad’s family, his fathers birthday became a day of celebration and big family gatherings of the whole mishpokhe on Christmas Day carried over into my own childhood. Whose birthday we were celebrating was at times unclear.

Because Papa wasn’t the only one to get presents on December 25th.

Vintage Santa illustration

For the first few years of my childhood, Santa Claus in fact did squeeze his corporeal self down our narrow brick chimney to deliver cheerily wrapped presents. In a suburban house without a fireplace like ours, I suspect Santa swooped down directly to our finished basement landing softly on the ping-pong table having to trudge up the stairs to leave presents for my brother and myself.

Vintage Santa Clause Coca Cola Ad

I often wondered whether Santa made a pit stop in our kitchen as he did in the classic Coca-Cola ads. Of course in our refrigerator, Santa wouldn’t  find any of the frosty green bottles of Coke which he was accustomed to, but he could pause for a refreshment courtesy of Cotts Cream Soda, or Dr. Brown’s Cel Ray, perhaps stopping to take a nosh of the Hebrew National salami that was always stocked  in our Frigidaire.

 

collage Holiday Christmas Ham ad and Nativity Scene

Naturally my parents had their limits when it came to certain Christmas traditions.

Neither a stately Douglas fir with its scented blue-green leaves or a shiny silver Aluminum Xmas tree ever graced our mid-century living room. There would be no sentimental ornaments, no glowing bubble lights, nor silver icicles. The exotic scents of balsam and baking holiday ham was strictly off-limits, as forbidden as Oy- Gevalt! a ceramic crèche.

Nor would there be there any merry red felt Christmas stockings. In its place were my father’s oversize woolen argyle socks stuffed to the gills with small tchotchkes.

The one lone Christmas decoration often shared space with our menorah.

A tall plastic Santa Claus figurine beaming merrily from the top of the mahagony Emerson TV set. He watched over the proceeding on Christmas Eve as my parents wrapped toys assembling and fumbling with D batteries all through the night as Perry Como and Nat King Cole sang out their Christmas tunes on their RCA hi-fi.

collage Vintage ad for Christmas toys and Jesus

Truth be told, I am not sure this was all kosher with my more observant Jewish mother.

Christmas is after all inescapably Christian as much as it’s been commercialized and secularized over the years. She did not want to keep the Christ in Christmas.

“You’re Entitled!”

I suspect it was the cajoling of my more secular father who was beguiled by Christmas’s charms and didn’t want to deprive his dear children of this gift-giving extravaganza.  The miracle of Hanukkah couldn’t hold a candle to the magic of Christmas, or so my father felt. The heroic exploits of the Maccabees would not be enough to hold our attention, hoo-ha!

A Santa Claus Christmas won hands down.

Initially.

Yes Shmulie, There is a Santa Claus

Vintage picture Santa Clause in Uncle Sam Hat with children

If gifts were involved a visit to Santa was mandatory  Since Santa Claus was as American an icon as Uncle Sam, my mother saw  no harm in it. Plotzing down on a jolly plump man’s lap to request a litany of consumer items seemed as American as apple pie.

The week before Christmas Mom and I would head into N.Y.C. Along with viewing the magical Christmas displays in all the department store windows, we stopped in Best & Company a  Department Store on Fifth Avenue to have my hair cut and curled at the tony children’s salon.

vintage illustration children visiting Santa Claus

I would exit picture perfect for sitting on Santa’s lap in Macys our final destination. My blonde hair and blue eyes belied my heritage and I fit in seamlessly with other little boys and girls who waited patiently on line for their chance to ask for the most sought-after toys likely heard hawked on “The Mickey Mouse Club.”

A glance at my baby book reveals what I got for Christmas. Along with a record of my vaccinations and my first steps, is a record of baby’s Christmas diligently written in by my mother. There is nary a mention of holiday gelt but a single recording of what Santa delivered for my third Christmas. It was a lollapalooza of gifts fit for any mid-century boy or girl or both:

A gasoline pump, hunting equipment, gun, canteen, mess kit, a doll stroller, doll high chair, Ginette Doll and  Blue Teddy Bear.

My religious identity was apparently as diverse and inclusive as the list of toys I received.

Enough With the Christmas!

My visits to Santa stopped abruptly as did my Christmas celebration once I began grade school. Perhaps in an effort to solidify my identity as a Jew and dispel any confusion, Hanukkah would forever take prominence. The gift giving now stretched out to eight full days which for a child was the real miracle of Hanukkah.

Curiously, the few pictures taken of me with the department store Santa suspiciously disappeared years later.

In a house of hoarders, no colorful Kodak snapshots of that event exist.  Was evidence destroyed as part of my parent’s plausible denial allowing me to sail though Hebrew school without this taint to my past? Was Jewish Guilt to blame?

But for the baby book inscription, no trace of my former life as a shiksa exists to this day.

The fond memories, however, remain.

Next: Jews and Christmas – Not so New

My father was not alone in his feelings and in fact there was a long history of Jews in America celebrating Christmas. Hanukkah had long been a minor festival in the Jewish religion. As a way to feel assimilated many immigrant Jews at the turn of the last century adopted Christmas customs such as  gift giving. The Yiddish press at the time even took note running articles asking “Why should Jewish children not have Christmas trees?”

© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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7 comments

  1. My first inklimng that Christmas was a restricted holiday was when i was in sewcondf grade. We made Christmas-themed construction paper firt trees and had a little Christmas party on outr last dayy before the holiday. One of our litgtle classmates, To,mmy Benson, was missing. Our teacher explained he was Jewish and dfidn’t celebrate Christmas. I felt sad for Tommy because I was pretty sure he didn’t get Christmas presents either.

    Later, we occasionally had Jewish or Muslim staff members who volunterred to work on the holidays in place of Christian coworkers. I doubt any Christians (I certainly didn’t…) worked for our Jewish and Muslim coworkers on their major holidays, but I confess it didn’t even occur to me till I wrote this comment. Shame on me!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “My first inkling that Christmas was a restricted holiday was when i was in second grade.” “fir trees” “on our last day before the holiday” “One of our little classmates, Tommy Benson” “who voilunteered”

    You know, WordPress recently made “improvements” to the editor, improvements that continue to screw me up. I’d kiss the dirt the “helpers” walk on if they’d add an edit feature to posted comments. I swear I read those two paragraphs before I hit the post button! I even made several edits.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I knew what you meant despite the typos. I thought perhaps you just had imbibed too much holiday cheer! I have not touched the “new editor” features as i am often wary of “improvement” and still use the old tried and true editor which works just fine

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      • The big difference between where you are and here is those Muslim and Jewish colleagues tended to be well educated staff level folks with families, not some stereotypical boogeymen a fantasy wall on the southern border would keep out. To know people from other cultures (here) tends to make them friends and neighbors in this part of the country.

        If I could figure out how to return to the old editor, I’d do it in a flash. The new one doesn’t even have a spell check as best I can tell, and, as my posts show, I rely on it to find those stray extra letters. I am a hunt and peck typist. My new laptop has a larger keyboard than the old, and my fingers tend to follow the old muscle memory to where letters used to be.

        Like

  3. That is an interesting point as there is a discrepancy of Christians filling in for co-workers of another religion, though I do know of some here in NY who might volunteer to fill in for the Jewish High Holidays

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  4. I’m Jewish and I take part in Christmas. But….I converted. I have Christian family. I have heirloom decorations that I must use to appease my family. I came to a compromise. I blend the two and leave all the religious heirloom stuff packed away. As much as possible, I stick to a blue and silver color scheme. I realize Chanukah ended way before Christmas, but I can’t put the decorations away and upset family. My family is important to me.

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

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