As Hanukkah approaches, I share a little secret.
Like many American Jews, I secretly covet Christmas.
Though taught in the Ten Commandments not to covet thy neighbor’s wife, there was no explicit directive to coveting thy neighbor’s 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.
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.
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.
It helped that my paternal grandfather, Papa Moishe was born on December 25th just like Jesus another Jewish boychik. In Dad’s family, his father’s 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.
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.
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.
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 were 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 mahogany 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.
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.
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.
Yes Shmulie, There is a Santa Claus
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.
I would exit picture-perfect for sitting on Santa’s lap in Macy’s 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 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 through 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, 2019. 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.
I am Jewish but my maternal uncle married an Irish-Catholic woman and later converted to Catholicism and raised my cousins Catholic. Every year in my childhood, we wnt to my uncle’s house for Christmas. In my home, my sister and I received 8 small gifts on each night of Chanukah and then bigger gifts on Christmas Day. How’s that for confusing? One rule though: we never had a Christmas and not even a “Chanukah bush” which was a small white tree with blue Chanukah ornaments that many Jewish parents gave their children to not feel “de[rived’. My mom drew the line there! Into adolescence and adulthood, it was important for me to date Jewish guys but my sister always dated non-Jews and eventually married an Italian-Catholic. I joked when they got engaged “You will finally have your Christmas tree” and sure enough my sister and family [3 kids and husband] put up a tree and outside decorations. It was my favorite time because I celebrated with them every Christmas Eve with the feast of seven fishes and got to lavish gifts on my two nieces and one nephew. Eventually that stopped about ten years ago and I have no Christmas celebration to attend anymore. Even as a Jew, I miss Christmas.
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I am glad you had so many years celebrating Christmas through marriages in your family.
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Although I was raised Christian, my best friend through highschool was Jewish. I loved her family as I felt they were more inclusive than mine. During the season, she would give me a Christmas gift and I would give her a Chanukah gift. We were equally mesmerized by the other’s beliefs and traditions. This was back in the 60s and 70s. Although it was normal for us, and thankfully our parents encouraged the relationship and curiosity; I know that we were a rare pairing in our town. I’d like to think that we’ve grown past these relationships being anomalies. Thank you for your article.
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That was a lovely tradition, and one I think many folks participate in now, an acknowledement and sharing of one anothers holidays.
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Thought you might find this interesting about an Orthodox Jew who plays Santa Claus. https://www.jta.org/2018/12/10/culture/this-santa-claus-is-an-orthodox-jew and the video https://youtu.be/wG8oIPp771c
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That’s fascinating. Thank you for sharing.
When I was a second grader, Tommy was absent the day we had a Christmas party. It turned out he was Jewish, the first person I knew of that faith. His parents kept him home that day, presumably with the permission of the school. We children felt sorry he couldn’t share the fun with us, and we were clueless to what “Jewish” meant beyond our teacher’s brief explanation and the fact he didn’t get to celebrate Christmas. At that age, Christmas meant toys and other gifts, plus the Christmas tree and Santa. A world without those things seemed so sad and alien. Of course, little did we know about Hanukkah and all those gifts, special food, etc! In the 1950s, there was a fair amount of ignorance about such things, certainly among children. According to an online source, the Jewish holiday landed around Christmas that year, so Tommy probably was enjoying a lot of the things we thought his faith denied him for not being a Christian!
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It’s interesting that Tommy’s parents decided to keep Tommy from the Christmas celebration at school. Christmas was a big holiday in my elementary school despite the fact that there was an equal distribution of Jewish children and non-Jewish children. I’m fairly certain there was no mention or celebration of Hanukkah.
He was the only Jewish child in the class or school for that matter. This was Western Nebraska in the mid-1950s! He father was a geologist on a temporary job involving exploratory drilling for oil, as I recall, and they lived in my town for a bit over a year before moving elsewhere.
Then in many ways, he and his family must have felt a sense of not really belonging and probably knew this situation was temporary. Thanks for clarifying
That’s my sense of it, too.
Weggieboy and Sally, All denominations should be recognized, not omly JudeoChristian but also Hindu, Muslin, Kwanzaa for African-Americans and any other religion represented by members of the student body. Sally, you and I are of the same generation and I went to a school that was ½ Jewish and ½ Christian and Chanukah was recognized too right down to Chanukah songs sung in our holiday concerts. Here in NYC, schools are closed 2 Muslim holY days in addition to Jewish holy days and the usual Christian legal holidays [interesting in a country that claims separation of church and state].