"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"


 

 This time of year I see otherwise normal people don headbands with faux reindeer antlers and jaunty looking stocking caps.  These adornments are worn without irony as a tribute to the season.  For me, things are simpler.  I just get my hair trimmed so my horns show, then I gild them with gold leaf and add tinsel.  This cuts out a lot of crap; when people see my festive horns, I don’t have to answer insipid questions about whether or not Jews celebrate Christmas. 

 Five girls from the local high school, smartly dressed in elf outfits, showed up at my son's kindergarten last week.  They entered room 210 ringing bells.  “We're here from Santa's workshop,” they told the children with serious enthusiasm.  “Does anyone have any questions?  About toy making?  Reindeer?  The North Pole?”   

 It was a little awkward at first because the kids didn't have any questions.  The kindergartners just sat there on the carpet, mouths agape.  So the teacher had us sing Jingle Bells, and then we were all able to relax.  Ethan raised his hand and told the elves he wanted a transformer toy for Christmas.  Could they let Santa know about that?  This comment immediately set off a rash of urgent gift messages for Santa.  Sean raised his hand and said, “What if I (pause, fumble, fumble) did something (pause) bad?”  The tallest elf graciously enthused, “I'm sure you didn't do anything that bad!”  Sean did not look convinced.  A second elf piped in.  “You are all good kids.  Santa will bring something to you all of you!  Of course he will!”          

 Except not to my son.  And Santa won't bring anything to Sonia Rabinowitz, or Adam Hechtman, either.  They are the young Jews of room 210.  No matter how good they've been Santa will bring them nothing.  Nada.  Bubkes.  My son and I discuss this later; after I read him a story and before he falls asleep.     

    “Mommy, is Santa going to bring me anything?”
    “No.  We don't celebrate Christmas.”
    “Why not?”
    “Because we're not Christian.”
    “How does Santa know that?”
    “He doesn't know that.  Santa isn't real.  He's like the tooth fairy.” 
    “But I was good, wasn't I?”
    “It has nothing to do with being good, honey.  We're Jewish.  We don't celebrate Christmas.”     

 And so my son is left to conclude what Jewish children have concluded for eons; being Jewish and being bad have the same net result.  You don't get nuttin' for Christmas.  When Jewish children begin to understand that their people have radical differences from the mainstream population, it can be painful.  This discovery of  “otherness” is the beginning of self-hatred for some Jews.  For others, it is the beginning of inflated self-importance.  For most of us, it is the beginnings of both.    

 My parents chose to live a Jewish life in rural Michigan where there were no Jews.  There were Jews in Michigan of course, just not where we lived.  Until I was five, my parents were able to shelter me from the raw facts.  

me: Why is that tree covered in lights? 
my mother:  It's not important.  Hey, look at that cow!
me: Who is that man in the red suit with the white beard?
my mother:  Don't look at him.  Wow, that’s a really big corn field!    

 My mother didn't want me to notice Christmas.  She was afraid that if I knew about Christmas this knowledge would eventually lead to inter-marriage, or perhaps, God forbid, the eating of ham.  Does cognizance of Christmas somehow make one less Jewish?  Or susceptible to conversion?  As if Christianity were a contagious disease?  “Be sure to wash your hands after viewing the crèche.”  But then I started kindergarten at the local public school and despite my mother's best efforts, all was revealed.  The children in my class were a collection of Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, and a sprinkling of Catholics.  From the lovely Miss Lawrence, I learned about Santa Claus, Reindeer, The Easter Bunny, and also about something called “Church.”      

 When I brought crafts home from school, my mother would find  a way to make them less offensive.

me:  Look what I made at school.                                                                                                   my mother:  If we paint the beard black and exchange the red hat for this yarmulke, he'll look just like  your Uncle Moe!
me:  But he's Santa Claus!
my mother:  We don't believe in Santa Claus.

me:  Look what I made at school.
my mother:  If we remove the red nose and the antlers, we could make it look like a cow.
me:  But it's a reindeer!
my mother:  We don't believe in reindeer.

How can you not believe in reindeer? 

 As I got older our conversations became more philosophical: 

me:  Can I have a candy cane?
my mother:  No
me:  Why not?
my mother:  Because the “J” stands for “Jesus.”
me:  Maybe it stands for “Joy.” Or “Jew.”    

 When I was a little older than my son is now, I wanted more than anything for Christmas to come to my house.  I wanted a pretty tree decked with ornaments and lights.  I wanted frosted cookies and a gingerbread house.   One year, after my parents had gone to bed on Christmas Eve I crept downstairs with the intention of hanging a stocking -- well, a tube sock, actually, that I had covertly colored with a red marker -- on our mantle,  except for that I couldn't figure out how to make it stay.  In the pictures I had seen of Christmas stockings I recalled that they just sort of hung there, stuck onto the mantle perhaps (I was becoming convinced) by some magical Christian force.  No matter how I pressed the sock, it kept falling onto the hearth.  I finally used masking tape.  It didn't look very festive, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances.   I knew I was supposed to leave Santa some food.  I had hidden away several chocolate coins from our recent Hanukkah celebration just for this purpose.  I also found some stray mandel bread and a few stale donuts.  I thought the plate of goodies looked pleasing.  Then I prayed.  I got down on my knees in front of my sock and whispered, “Please, Jesus.  Please make Santa come.”  I didn't know any other Christian things to say, so I tried other variations.  “O Come, please, Santa! Jesus Christ! Please make Santa come!  I'm not bad!  I'm Jewish!”  Then I sang Jingle Bells under my breath and went to bed.

 I have Israeli cousins, originally from Russia, who have moved to Oregon for a year through a work exchange program.  We had dinner at their home yesterday evening and I was surprised to find that they had a small Christmas tree in their living room.  I questioned them about it, wondered if they were humoring themselves with what they must see as an American custom.  They vehemently denied that it was a Christmas tree, even though it was covered in lights and had a Santa sitting at its base.  “It is a New Year Tree!  In Russia, we always have a New Year Tree!  Here, it is no different!”  “But,” I said, “Did you have a New Year Tree in Israel?  Do other Jews have New Year Trees?”  “In the Russian Jewish community, yes, we all have New Year Tree!”  In Russia, my cousins explained, The New Year was one of the few holidays that was allowed by the government.  It was non-religious.  Trees covered in lights were allowed.  So everybody had one.  It was a holiday!  Any cause for celebration was embraced.   

 My parents grew up in Toledo, Ohio.  Their parents had been immigrants from Poland and Russia and they had been raised in conservative, kosher, Jewish homes.  My parents left Toledo, eventually settling in the countryside beyond Detroit, but much of their family remained in Toledo.  We were always making a car trip for a family wedding, a bar-mitzvah, or a funeral.  I came to believe that everybody in Toledo, Ohio was Jewish, and that all of them were related to me.   As my understanding of the world became more sophisticated, I also understood that Blue Cross/Blue Shield was health insurance for Jews, and that the Red Cross was health insurance for Christians.  While it did bother me that Blue Cross had a cross -  why not Blue Star/Blue Shield?  I never asked my mother about that one.  I just chalked it up to assimilation.     

 My daughter's 3rd grade teacher, Ms G, is a non-religious person.  She recently mentioned to me that last year, in an attempt to maintain religious neutrality in her classroom, she replaced the holiday party with a pot-latch, which was in keeping with her current curriculum on Northwest Native cultures.  A displeased parent approached her and spat, “You must be an atheist!”   This year, Ms G has decided to hold a “reading day” in lieu of the holiday party; the kids will spread out on the floor with sleeping bags and pillows and spend the day reading.  Pizza will be served.  The kids came up with this concept on their own.  It is a very Godless idea and I am sure they will have some misgivings when they see the 3rd grade across the hall sucking on candy canes and singing carols.  This class across the hall just returned from a field trip to view the Christmas decorations at a local historic mansion.  This was justified as a history lesson.  Another parent I know kept his son home on the day that his kindergarten class was taken to a local mall to see the Santaland display.   This parent challenged the teacher, and later the principal, as to whether this was a good use of instructional time, and also whether a field trip to meet Santa might be offensive to those children's families who don't celebrate Christmas.  “For goodness sake, relax,”  the principal said. “Santa is secular!”  Laws regarding separation of church and state support this assertion. 

 I know Santa is not a religious figure.  Santa is not a crèche, he is not holy.  But he is synonymous with Christmas, and Christmas is a religious holiday.  And while Santa might be secular, he's certainly not Jewish.  For many Jewish children, Santa Claus, elves, mangers, reindeer, pine trees, snowflakes, even winter is synonymous with Christmas.  No matter that many of the icons of Christmas have pagan roots.  Wreaths, mistletoe; they were forbidden and offensive, in all their red, white and tinseled glory, in the eyes of my Jewish mother.  During the Christmas assembly at my school, I sat out.  As a member of my high school choir I opted out of the religious music, much to the annoyance of the director, and despite the words being in Latin.  The director rightly pointed out to me, and my mother, that a tremendous amount of important music has Christian roots.  This didn't matter.  Bach, Shmach.  If the song mentioned Jesus, the words were not to pass my lips.   

 At our children's elementary school my husband and I attend the annual winter sing-a-long that so many years ago I was banned from as a child.  In the packed gymnasium, I hum along with the more “secular” songs, not ever having learned all the words.  I feel righteously indignant towards the songs that I think are inappropriate in a public school setting, the ones that make direct reference to God and Jesus.  But we are there, together as a family, enjoying the season.   In this relatively liberal and enlightened community of ours, we also sing two Hanukkah songs, a Kwanzaa song, and as a finale the assistant principal pulls out his guitar and leads us in John Lennon's “Imagine.”  My husband and I exchange meaningful looks as we sing, “Imagine there's no religion.”  This last song does bring tears to my eyes.  Maybe my mother would have approved.    

 Some of my mother's fears have come to pass.  While I did marry a Jew, we do eat ham.  Our son is not circumcised. We do not observe Yom Kippur.   We don't go to synagogue.  My husband and I are making efforts to raise our kids with as little God baggage as possible.  We try not to rain on any joy they might feel while singing a Christmas carol.  As they say, history might not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.   I'm a grown up.  My parents are dead.  I could have a Christmas tree if I wanted to; there's no one to criticize my choices.  But the issue is this: somewhere along the way as I figured out why the Blue Cross wasn't a star and delighting in the pleasures of bacon, I became an atheist.  I don't celebrate Christmas not out of Jewish guilt, but because 1) I don't know how: see stocking fiasco above.  I don't have the slightest idea how make a wreath.  I can't tell the difference between a spruce and a fir.  And because 2) I don't care.  Christmas doesn't mean anything to me.  It might have once.  God knows I wanted it as a child.  Now it represents for me not peace, or joy, but a public display of American consumerism at its worst.  It represents the insensitivities and ignorance of a mainstream culture that assumes every person partakes in the mainstream holiday.  Christmas makes me bitter.  And feeling bitter about Christmas makes me feel Jewish.  And bad.  Like the recent conclusion my son had about Santa, and goodness, and gifts.

my daughter:  Why can't we have a Christmas Tree?
me:  We aren't Christians.
my daughter:  But you told me that Christmas is a pagan tradition.
me:  We aren't pagans, either.
my daughter:  What are we then?
me:  Self-hating Jews. 
 

 I have a new friend who is Swiss German.  She has a delightful accent and I can't always understand her words.  Knowing I am Jewish, she asked me recently about Hanukkah traditions; then I asked her about Christmas in Switzerland.   She told me that Swiss families wait for little baby flying cheeses to arrive and bring gifts to the children.  I liked this idea.  I like cheese.  This seemed like a Christmas tradition I could perhaps learn to embrace.  It was so pure and delicious sounding.  But then, upon further questioning, I realized that I had misunderstood “little baby flying cheeses.” She had actually said “little baby flying Jesus,” referring to an archaic, angelic Jesus figure.  Damn.  I was almost ready to re-think our holiday.