Christmas Passed

My first experience with Christmas wasn’t until I was in high school. Sure, I knew what it was and it was hard to deny its presence once the pumpkin patches turned to tree lots, but I only had a high level concept of the event gleaned from beloved TV specials and movie classics like A Christmas Story. I imagined it was something like a combination of a Thanksgiving Day feast, a well-stocked birthday party and a ride on “It’s a Small World” (with slightly less repetitious music). Whatever it was, it sounded awesome and I wanted a piece of it.

I realized I was on a different life path when my mother would make her annual trip to our elementary school to embarrass the crap out of me and my sister,… or, from my mom’s perspective, “to share ethnic diversity” in the form of potato latkes with our Christian / Catholic counterparts. Turned out we were the only Jews in the entire district so my mother saw it as her duty to spread the word of God and try to make Hanukkah sound cool. Not an easy sell down on the school yard.

Historically Hanukkah was more of a minor festival, somewhere between Easter and Groundhogs Day. It was meant to celebrate the miracle of a deep fryer that kept the home fries cooking for over a week while the chosen people hid under their table trying to wait out some particularly persistent Mormon missionaries that came knocking at the door. Ok so maybe the fryer was an oil lamp, the table was a temple and the Mormon’s were Maccabees, but you get the idea. The telling of this tale is not nearly as catchy as “the birth of our lord and savior”. The first Christmas would become such a defining moment that we would change our very measure of time from that point forward. The first Hanukkah,… they may have invented shadow puppets, who knows, I wasn’t there, but you see the disparity; Hanukkah is like the Coors Lite to the rich thick Guinness of Christmas.

My parents tried to up the game and keep up with the gentiles. We got some blue string lights and decorated a Hanukkah bush. My dad, being the handy electrician, made a 3 foot wide menorah with light up candles that we would set in the front window, just in case people were wondering where that one crazy Jewish family lived. Like all Jewish (American) parents they would try to play up the fact that we got eight nights of presents while our friends only got one.   That might sound great in theory, but think about Christmas morning when you’re faced with a pile of presents and then have to wait so everyone can take turns opening one present at a time. Imagine the torment of waiting your turn,… now imagine opening just one single present and then being asked to wait entire day before you can open another; That would be Hanukkah. To make matters worse a lot of those early presents were nothing to write Santa about, they were either necessities such as socks and underwear, or just plain sucky gifts like coloring books with some B-list cartoon characters like “Dastardly and Muttley”. I can remember waiting all day for the sun to go down so my mom could light the candles and then waiting again after dinner for the candles to finally burn out. Then, and only then, were we ready for the big event. We’d retire to the family room as my mom dug around in the closet for a suitable present du jour. The day long torment and anticipation culminated in this one exciting moment; “Yay, my very own Hot Wheel! I’m going to sleep. Wake me at sundown”.

Don’t get me wrong I do have many fond memories of Hanukkah as well. The Sunday brunch that my mom would host with fresh bagels and an assortment of weird salads and Jell-O concoctions that were all amazing together. Teaching my friends how to gamble with the dreidel and eating the chocolate gelt (coins) as we played. The few times when the final big present was a trip to King Norman’s Toy Store at the mall and we got to pick out our own present.

But still I always wondered what lay behind the curtain, how did the other half,… or the other seven-eighths live? I got to see the aftermath growing up, going over to my friends’ houses following the big day while still on Christmas break (before schools changed the name to “Winter Break” so as not to offend). They all had amazing piles of loot to show off, not to mention a healthy dose of candy and other random leftovers that still littered the living room days after the tree had been pillaged. Everyone was happy in the post-holiday glow. Everything about it seemed magical, and a night much better spent then our traditional Christmas Eve of Chinese food and a movie. “Wanna see my Hot Wheel?”

When I was in high school, one of my friends, Pat invited me over to experience their family ritual. Pat was the youngest of four kids, and each of his siblings was married or engaged by this time. Combine that with a couple of grandkids and a few other friends and relatives and you got one very full house. For them Christmas Eve brought the sentimental exchange of gifts between family members, opening all of the presents under the tree. On Christmas morning Santa would leave a fresh batch of special bonus presents to round out the holiday.   It was a warm, cozy, boisterous night filled with love and laughter. It was everything I’d ever dreamed off, with one small exception; as welcome as they made me feel it still wasn’t really “mine”.

I celebrated my first Christmas about five years later when I’d turned 21. Appropriately it was spent with my first real girlfriend. We went out on a blustery morning to pick out a tree of our own. We decorated our tree together (something I’d never done before) as we drank hot cocoa in holiday mugs. I put presents under the tree. I listened to Christmas carols freely. I embraced the holiday.

After I was married there was no turning back. Christmas would explode all over the house on the first of December. I happily hung lights from the roof (at least as much as I could reach with a ladder), lined the windows and sprung for some festive lawn ornaments.   When kids came along they enjoyed both holidays; a sampling of Hanukkah throughout the week, including a traditional first night dinner of brisket and latkes with doughnuts for dessert and then a full Christmas experience with all the trimmings.

At this point I can’t imagine a year without Xmas. Even after the divorce, with some of the established customs disrupted and kids only appearing on alternate years, I still enjoy all the moments leading up to the big day. For me it’s not about religion; I celebrate the spirit of Christmas; peace on earth, goodwill towards man, all that sappy stuff. I don’t go to Midnight mass and I don’t have to trade in my mezuzah for a crucifix. I still love and respect my heritage and all that comes with it. But there are only so many times I can listen to the one Hanukkah song by Adam Sandler on the radio while I could play A Charlie Brown Christmas on a continuous loop. It warms my heart, and this is a time of year to share your heart with your friends and family in whatever way feels best to you. So Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night,… l’chaim.

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