Wife Paula, dog Brewster & some bearded guy. Photo by Shel
[Note: I first posted this in December 2003 and have reposted it every December since. I hope you enjoy it.]
I grew up in the 1950s in New Bedford, Mass., an overwhelmingly Christian city. Christmas was the biggest day of the year. Schools were closed. Parents enjoyed rare paid days off. Often, snow coated the ground. Churches stood in every neighborhood and their bell towers would chime carols all day long.
I was a Jewish kid and I knew this day was not for me, But, I just couldn’t help feel the excitement. My parents, who were born in Europe at a time when it was unfortunate to be simultaneously European and Jewish, were ambivalent. They loved the decorations and the excitement they saw in their younger son, but still, they kept reminding us that we were merely observers of someone else’s special day.
But we were active observers. We could not resist.
Our family would drive to gentile neighborhoods where we admire the lights, decorations and even manger scenes. One year, we ventured all the way to Boston–in those days a two-hour drive. There we saw live reindeer fenced in on Boston Commons. If you looked from one side, you could see the Golden Dome of the Massachusetts, state house, a symbol of our government. If you looked the other way, there was the venerable Park Street Church. Beside our reindeer, was a huge, illuminated plastic nativity scene.
More than once, my mother cooked a turkey on Christmas Day and aunts, uncles and cousins family came 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. It was just “the Holiday.”
Christmas was a source of huge confusion for me as a boy.
But the Festival of Lights, as it is called, seemed to 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.
While he was still alive, my grandfather, a white-haired kindly old man gave me Chanukah “gelt,” in the form of a silver dollar. A dollar was big-time money back then, and my brother and I looked forward to it long in advance.
But grandfather gelt wasn’t the main event. How could my grandfather ever compete with the other white-haired guy, the one in the red suit toy-making elves, and flying reindeer?
I liked getting a gift each of the eight days of Hanukkah, even if most were 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 Elementary School, I’d hear glee-filled reports of how my Christian friends had awakened Dec. 25 to find living rooms, like cornucopias, overflowing with great stuff like Schwinn bikes, Lionel Trains, American Flyer sleds, red wagons and Erector sets. All they had to do was to leave out some faith-based milk and cookies the night before for some strange guy named Santa Claus.
I wondered about Santa. He looked too fat for the chimneys he allegedly used for entry. He never seemed to land on burning embers and his suit never looked sooty. But still, the proof was there that the guy delivered.
But beyond the gifts and Santa mystery, there were the miracles. The Christian holiday was about 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.” 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 Assyrian invaders,making himself a central figure in the whole Hanukkah tale. At a time when the stereotyped Jewish male was a bit of a wimp, Maccabee made me proud. He was our Rocky, our Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, our Jackie Robinson. He was Jewish, tough and if you didn’t like it, he could kick your butt.
I started remembering all this while driving through the sad city of East Palo Alto (EPA). A few years back, EPA had boasted 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 the Sun Microsystems campus [now Oracle].
But as I sat at a traffic light watching a packaged goods deal between a dude in a long leather 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 68th 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 Assyrian 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, Confucians and even Republicans. In my travels, I’ve come to know people of many faiths and hues and I always marvel at how very much alike we are when we sit down and try to know each other.
I don’t pray, but I do hope. If you do pray for these issues, I hope they come true and I will be grateful to you if your prayers deliver the 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.”