[Wife Paula, dog Brewster & Unidentified bearded man in red suit. Photo by Shel]
is the 5th time I've published this holiday post. The only real change is my having to update my age. The annual trigger seems to be the annual purchase of a holiday tree, which we just placed in our living room. Enjoy.
I grew up in the 1950s in New Bedford, Mass., an overwhelmingly Christian East Coast city. Christmas was the biggest day of the year. School was closed. Parents had rare paid days off. There was usually snow on the ground and the abundant churches would chime carols from bell towers all day long.
Even if you were a Jewish kid and you knew this day was not designed for you, you couldn’t help but share in the excitement. My parents, who were born in Europe at a time when it was unfortunate to be both European and Jewish, were unable to conceal their own ambivalence. Our small family would drive to gentile neighborhoods admiring decorations. We once ventured all the way to Boston--in those days a two-hour drive-- where we saw live reindeer fenced in on Boston Commons beside a large illuminated plastic nativity scene.
More than once, my mother cooked a turkey on Christmas day and family would come for the day—but we never, ever admitted that the celebration had any relationship to Christmas. There were no stockings hung by our chimney with care, no bulbous piles of loot, no sweet smell of pine trees in our living room.
Christmas was a source of huge confusion for me as a boy and teenager. Perhaps it still is.
As a Jewish kid, we had Hanukkah. But the Festival of Lights, as it is called, seemed pale in the shadow of all that Christmas glitter of tinsel and bright blinking bulbs. Christmas was everywhere in the windows of homes and stores, on lawns in parks and even on rooftops. Yes, it was in the schools and no one even thought of objecting at that time. I still wouldn't.
While he was still alive, my grandfather, a white-haired kindly old man gave me Hanukkah “gelt,” in the form of a silver dollar. A dollar was big-time money back then, but how could my grandfather ever compete with the other white-haired guy, the one in the red suit with the elves, the flying sleigh and all his well-disguised doubles in department stores?
I liked getting a gift each of the eight days of Hanukkah, even if over-half was only socks and clothing that I would have gotten anyway. But while my Christian friends had only a single day, theirs seemed to be the Perfecta jackpot, dwarfing our quantity of days with their quality of day.
In January. when we went back to Betsy B. Winslow School, I’d hear glee-filled reports of how these Christian kids had awakened Dec. 25 to entire living rooms filled with Schwinn bikes, Lionel Trains, American Flyer Wagons and Junior Builder Erector Sets. All they had done was to leave out some faith-based milk and cookies the night before.
Christmas loot was bad enough, but then there were the miracles. Theirs was the birth of God’s son on a night when animals talked. Ours was that a temple light burned for a long time. Big deal. Our most popular Hanukkah song was, “Dreydle, Dreydle, Dreydle,” which has the same melodic merit as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Not quite on par with “Silent Night,” “First Noel” or even, for that matter, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Our Holiday food featured potato latkas, still a personal, cholesterol-soaked favorite, but we had no Mormon Tabernacle Choir, no TV special with Perry Como crooning “Ave Maria.“ We never dashed through the snow, laughing even part of the way.
But Hanukkah had one special part for a Jewish kid in that era-- latent machismo. The holiday story was about how Judah Maccabee had led a successful guerrilla war against the previously undefeated Roman Legions, making himself the central figure in the whole Hanukkah tale. Maccabee had kicked some serious Roman butt back when the Romans were the undefeated champs. It made me proud. He was our Rocky, our Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson. He wasn't no wimp as Jewish kids were often considered to be in the 50s.
I started remembering all this, while driving through the sad city of East Palo Alto (EPA). A few years back, EPA had the highest murder rate in the country--outdoing Detroit, New York City and Oakland. They say it’s a lot better now that they’ve brought in a Home Depot, Ikea and Sun Microsystems campus. But as I sat at a traffic light watching a packaged goods deal between a dude in a long coat and a kid on a bike, I saw a sign that reminded me about what I envied most about Christmas. It hung in huge, slightly lopsided letters across University Avenue.
It said: “Peace on Earth.” There wasn’t space I guess, for the tagline, which of course is, “Good will toward men.”
Tomorrow will be my 65th Christmas. It was a great many Christmases ago when I first heard the words, and fewer Christmas ago when I came to understand the bigness of the concept and the power of the thought. Peace on Earth is much, much bigger than Maccabee kicking Roman butt.
Not too many years ago, I met Paula who is now my wife. She loved Christmas like the kids in the old TV programs sponsored by Hallmark cards. She loved the planning, and decorating; the gifting and wrapping and opening and putting ribbons on her head; she loved the cooking and filling the house with unlikely assortments of people who somehow enjoyed each other. Her zeal put me at odds with my own deep and ambiguous feelings about the holiday. I’ve never been able to explain them to her in any way that makes sense and perhaps that’s what I’m trying to do in this particular blog.
There are now two things special about Christmas for me. The first is the big thought, dream or illusion of peace on earth and goodwill between its many inhabitants--Christians Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists and even Republicans. I don’t pray, but I do hope. If you do pray for these issues, I hope they come through and I will be grateful to you if your prayers delivered that dream.
The second is smaller and more personal. It’s about Paula and how she catches the season’s joy as if it were something contagious. Whatever the germ, I’ve caught it as I find myself looking forward to the planning, and decorating; the gifting, wrapping and opening--albeit without ribbons on my head. Monday our home will filled with unlikely assortments of people and I already know it will work out just fine.
Happy holidays, whichever you choose to observe, and may the New Year bring all of us closer to peace on Earth."[Originally published December 24, 2003