Christmas is always a slightly strange time of year for a Jew in America. The majority of the country suddenly goes into a frenzy of preparations for the big day, chopping trees, stringing lights, buying, wrapping and hiding gifts and occasionally even going to church. School for the year winds down in a series of concerts, plays, and marathon test cramming sessions, and then suddenly everybody gets two weeks off.
As a kid I couldn’t help but feel left out. My best friend had a huge tree covered with ornaments, tinsel, candy canes and flashing colored lights in the middle of his living room. Every day more and more beautifully wrapped gifts appeared under it, mounding up like the snow in the yard. Meanwhile at our house everything went on exactly as before, except my Grandpa would light some candles on an ancient metal candelabra he called “the menorah,” and mumble a few prayers in Hebrew, Yiddish, or one of the other indecipherable languages that he spoke. If I stood and watched while he did it he might give me a piece of hard candy afterwards, or more likely a cough drop, since he didn’t really care for hard candy. If it was a Luden’s Cherry drop that was OK, but often he’d stick me with a Hall’s menthol drop that made me gag and want to retch.
It seemed so unfair that my Christian friends were getting piles of presents and huge celebratory dinners while I was getting liver and onions and told I couldn’t even go over to friends’ houses because they were having relatives visiting. It’s not like I was a deprived child: my dad owned a business that sold candy and toys to neighborhood mom and pop stores. He regularly gave us presents, not just one day a year, but any time he felt like it. However the candy he brought home was not the best stuff — it was usually samples of things that the candy manufacturers were pushing like Seven Up bars, which were comprised of seven chambers that each contained a different weird mix of artificially flavored fillings like coconut, butterscotch pudding, blue mint, pumpkin fudge, Brazil nut, cherry cheesecake, and orange jelly. Biting into one was like tasting all the unwanted leftover Halloween candy in one mouthful.
The only toys Dad sold were the cheap kind that were made in Japan, back when everything crappy was made in Japan. So while I might receive a couple of Hanukkah gifts, like a kazoo, a yo-yo or a whoopie cushion, my Christian friends were getting Lionel train sets, sleds, electric football games, portable phonographs, baseball mitts, and bicycles. One of them even got his own Labrador Retriever puppy. And I wasn’t even allowed to have a goldfish.
All of this seemed even worse after I found out that Jesus was Jewish. Most of the country was celebrating some Jewish kid’s birthday with the biggest party of the year and all us Jews were just supposed to ignore the whole thing? My grandpa tried in vain to explain the rationale to my seven-year-old mind. “Some people thought he was the messiah, but he wasn’t the messiah.”
“So Grandpa, who was the messiah?”
“We don’t know yet, we’re still waiting to find out.” Two thousand years and we’re still waiting to have a birthday party? We have the most patient religion ever created.
The situation was helped somewhat by the fact that my mom sympathized with me, and being basically agnostic she just appreciated the festive nature of the Christmas season. Since she loved to bake she made several huge batches of cookies, and divided them onto plates to pass out to all our neighbors, Jew and Gentile alike. There were gingerbread men, sugar cookies cut in the shapes of stars and bells, shortbread wreaths, rum snowballs, and Christmas trees. I got to help her decorate these with sprinkles, icing, and M&Ms. Her one concession to religion was that for the Jewish families she substituted dreidels for the Christmas trees.
Even though my grandpa strongly disapproved, she made me a giant gingerbread Christmas tree, all my own. I smeared it with green icing and decorated it with tiny little silver colored candy ornaments, and a red gumdrop on top. On Christmas Eve my mom told me to leave it on the coffee table near the fireplace “and maybe Santa Claus will leave something for you.” This made me extremely happy. I knew all about Santa Claus (what kid doesn’t?) and had even gotten to sit on his lap at the department store downtown when Mom had taken me on the bus to buy a new winter coat the previous week.
On Christmas morning I raced downstairs to find a large package with my name on it next to my cookie. I ripped off the wrapping paper to find a Cleveland Browns football helmet and a #32 jersey, the number of my hero Jim Brown. I was ecstatic. Santa Claus was a Browns fan! This cemented his reputation in my book and made me a true believer, even if my older brother just laughed when he saw my gifts, and said Mom had just gotten tired of seeing me play football with all the other kids in the neighborhood wearing helmets and me running head first into them wearing a ski cap, especially after one of the neighbor’s kids had his front teeth knocked out.
I wore my helmet most of the day, until my dad said he’d take us out for dinner at the Chinese restaurant and my mom told me it wasn’t polite to wear a helmet while you were eating, and besides I didn’t want to get sweet and sour sauce all over my new facemask.
I never had another Christmas quite like that as our Jewish community realized that they needed to up the ante and make Hanukkah a much bigger deal if they didn’t want their consumer brainwashed children to adopt Santa Claus and everything he stood for. They invented Santa’s counterpart Hanukkah Charlie, started setting up Hanukkah bushes to put presents under and somehow managed to turn what had once been a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar into the biggest gift giving time of the year.
But my favorite family tradition, and one that continues to this day, is to have everyone gather together on Christmas Day and have a big celebratory dinner at the Chinese restaurant dressed in our finest Browns’ jerseys. Helmets are optional.