Here’s the Jew-at-Christmas story I tell if I want to break hearts. It’s 1970 or thereabouts, a week or two after Christmas. All the kids in the block are hanging out and decide to play with the discarded trees and wreaths their parents have bundled for the trash. I don’t remember the point of the game, or how you play with a dead shrub, but I remember every kid paired off with some greenery except me — the Jewish kid. “Not you, you don’t have one!” says one of the kids, and I’m banished.
Sad, right? Cue the violins — or maybe an unhappy klezmer tune on a solo clarinet.
Here’s the other Jew-at-Christmas story I tell, the happy one. It’s a few years later, and my best friend has invited me over for Christmas Eve. They’re Irish Catholics, so they have six kids, and they’re well off, so they have a huge tree in a lavishly decorated living room. We sing Christmas carols, drink eggnog out of etched-glass cups. They have a present for me, and I even get a kiss from the mom, who is sort of the hot mom among our group of friends, so this memory gets a little complicated.
I suppose I could have been traumatized by the first memory, but it’s the second one that comes to me each Christmas, a holiday I don’t think I’ve stopped loving since that glass of eggnog. I love the music, I love the decorations, I love the countdown to Christmas Day. I haven’t seen a television Christmas special in years (unless you count Colbert’s). But I remember loving them at some point, especially A Charlie Brown Christmas — that weirdly melancholy half-hour of dashed expectations and minor-key jazz.
I especially look forward to — and if this starts getting a little personal, you’ll let me know — the Sunday comic strips that appear the week before Christmas. It still puts me into a tailspin if one of the strips doesn’t include a reference to the holiday — as if Hi and Lois or Garfield live in a world drained of tradition, alienated from their customs and the American mainstream.
And yet for all my Jewish love for Christmas I have never been tempted to set up a tree, or exchange presents with my family. If anything, it’s my distance from Christmas that allows me to enjoy it. Perhaps, had I grown up Christian, I’d find the holidays a drag, or a chore, or a desecration of the spiritual. As a Jew, and an active one at that, I am able to enjoy Christmas at a remove. I can pick and choose among customs, unencumbered by the expectations to “do it right,” whatever that means to my Christian neighbors. I have the same relationship to Christmas that grandfathers have to dogs and babies — they’re happy to play with them, but let somebody else clean up after them.
This year it is almost easier than ever to love Christmas — Hanukka seemed to have ended back in October, so there’s none of that tension between the holidays. No one is talking about the “December dilemma” this year, which is a huge relief for folks like me who have to read the annual crop of essays trying to reconcile the 12 Days of Christmas with the Eight Days of Hanukka. Besides, I never experienced the holidays as much of a dilemma, partly because my parents gave Hanukka exactly the (only slightly excessive) emphasis it was due, and didn’t make a big deal of shielding us from Christmas. I suppose if my mother had forbidden me from spending Christmas Eve with my friend, my feelings about the holiday might be more conflicted — maybe today I’d be Father Andrew, or married to one of my friend’s redheaded sisters. Instead, I can almost hear my mother’s thoughtful response when I asked if I could spend Christmas Eve with Michael. “Sure,” she’d say. “Knock yourself out.”
This is the attitude I have tried to impress on my own kids, with a little more enthusiasm. The key is that we leave no doubt as to what’s theirs as Christians and ours as Jews. Synagogue has been a big part of our family life, and the kids were all day-schooled. Friday night is sacrosanct. But so long as we fulfill our duties as Jews (and we’ve tried to make the mitzvot feel a little more joyous than “duties”) we can appreciate Christmas without apology or anxiety. Ooh and aah over the way they’ve decorated the tree in front of the hospital. Cross the street to admire the neighbors’ train set and crack our teeth on their sugar cookies. Line up for the window displays at Lord and Taylor.
That’s why I am always baffled about the complaints about a “war on Christmas.” Even when I recognize it for what it is — a ratings grab by Fox News Channel, for the most part — I feel sad that anyone thinks this Jew or any of his fellow Jews have a problem with Christmas. No, I don’t want it shoved down the throats of kids in public schools. But if anything, I want my neighbors to have a Merry Christmas — so that I can enjoy the show.