A Jew’s View of Christmas

December 17, 2011 · 31 comments in Personal & off-the-wall

Wife Paula, dog Brewster & some bearded guy. Photo by Shel

[Note: I first posted this in December 2003 and have reposted it almost 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.

As a Jewish kid, we celebrated Chanukah. There were gifts, and cholesterol/carb-soaked latkas. We Chanukah songs and played with toy tops called dreydle and it was fun.

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 the 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.”

{ 3 trackbacks }

Happy Hannukah! | Yael Writes
December 22, 2011 at 10:52 am
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Sheryl Camp December 20, 2011 at 9:45 pm

Shel, I sincerely hope you don’t stop posting this. It’s become a bit like, ’twas the night before Christmas, for me. I wait expectantly for you to re-post so my season can be complete!
Whatever you choose to do, know this, I anxiously await your tale of growing up and share it eagerly with my own family and friends. You and your story have become the star for my tree. Of course there are other stars, but I will remember you. :) Merry Christmas and Chag Sameach!

shel israel (@shelisrael) December 20, 2011 at 10:10 pm

Sharon. I am truly touched to realize that my writing means that much to you. Thanks for sharing. It is a wonderful gift on this first night of Chanukah. I will not forget your comment.

Linda Lauderdale December 20, 2011 at 7:09 am

Thank you, Shel. Don’t stop posting this. This was my first reading. You so elequently express the truth of what we Christians profess to celebrate this time of year.

shel israel (@shelisrael) December 20, 2011 at 8:30 am

Hi Linda, It has been so very many Christmases since we worked together at SIPR. Your cute little daughter must be all grown up by now. Have a healthyt and magical holiday season.

Carole Cohen December 19, 2011 at 11:33 pm

Thank you for sharing this, Shel. And ty for letting me know, through Twitter, that you had such a gem to share. I hope for peace as you do. It’s a few years from 2003, and like decades before, we are all hoping for peace. This year, at least we get troops coming home from Iraq…a small measure of peace, to be sure, but welcomed nonetheless. As a non-Christian (and non-Jew, I acquired my name through marriage), I have had years of rebellious feelings about the enormity of such a Christian holiday, and years when I was even a bit festive myself. Now, as I age, I find myself a bit more accepting of the fact that people celebrate and I don’t. And I do wish them a Merry Christmas. I hope you post this every year, and I am glad to be a social media friend of yours. Happy Hannukah to you and your family!

Terrence Seamon December 18, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Great post, Shel. I enjoyed it much.

As the Catholic son of a Jewish mother, here’s how I stay focused on the true meaning of Christmas.

For me, it comes down to one word: Gift. In the Gospel story, gift is a central image:

~ The Incarnation is God coming into the world as a gift of love and transformation.

~ The baby is an unexpected gift to Mary and Joseph.

~ And the Magi bring extraordinary gifts to the Holy Family.

So the best way to keep Christmas? Gift. Give gifts to others. Be a gift to others.

As a kid, I remember a TV commercial that said, “You don’t have to be Jewish to like Levi’s Rye Bread.” I think the same goes for Christmas.

~ You don’t have to be Christian to like Christmas.

Enjoy. Be the blessing.


Richard Rabins December 18, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Like the others, I truly enjoyed the article Shel. Very well written and sincere.

It makes one wonder if the only way the human race will unite under the banner of shared interests and common goals is for there to be a threat of an alien attack. Hopefully at some time humankind will realize we are all the same and we are all in this together. For a while when NASA started publishing those wonderful pictures of Earth, it served to put everything in a greater context and it seemed like more
People began to appreciate our similarities vs our differences!

shelisrael December 18, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Richard, thank you for such a wise observation. If my post inspired those thoughts in you, I hope your thoughts will inspire me moving forward.

Naomi Bloom December 18, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Shel, I too grew up Jewish in the 50′s, in Springfield, MA. I too, now that I’ve got a blog, have a favorite Jewish kid’s view of Christmas post, which will be coming up next week. I’ve copied last year’s post below because I thought you might enjoy it.

Peace on earth, good will to all of us, Naomi

A Bloom’s Christmas: Inventory Management And Retail Retold

Bloom’s Camera Catalogue Circa 1950
On Christmas Eve, my Dad’s retail camera shop closed early, and we knew we’d have him with us all that next day. Really just with us, even if he was too tired for much conversation after working the very long hours of the retail Christmas season. New Year’s Day was for taking inventory, and it was all hands, even my very small hands, to the wheel. But Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were really special. Time alone with my father Jack, who ran a modest camera shop with his brothers Paul and Herman (who published his “romantic” novels under the name Harmon Bellamy), was rare and precious.

When I was really young, my Dad left for work before dawn and rarely got home before I was put to bed. Friday nights were usually spent having Shabbat dinner, with all my Bloom aunts/uncles/cousins and even great aunts/uncles (those without their own children), at my grandmother’s house. After dinner, Dad went off to Schul with his brothers. On Saturday mornings, we were all off to Schul, but we were orthodox so my only male first cousin Elliot got to sit with his Dad. The store was open on Saturdays, so my Dad, in spite of the Orthodox prohibition against working on Shabbat, went from schul to work on many Saturdays, especially if they were short-handed by employee illness or vacations. Summer Sundays were for golf in the mornings and family time in the afternoons, often spent visiting family who lived far away. In those pre-turnpike (yes, before there were highways, there were turnpikes) days, the trip to Hartford, less than thirty miles away, took well over an hour. But on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we didn’t go visiting; we stayed home so that Dad could rest, and that meant me sitting beside him as we watched TV (once we had one) or read from the World Book Encyclopedia. My Dad was a great reader, something my sister and I have “inherited” from him.

In the run-up to Christmas, everyone worked long hours, and it was rare to see my Dad during December. My cousin Ronni and I, from about age seven, ran the strange machine in the open mezzanine above the shop floor that took addresses on metal plates and transferred them to labels for the Christmas mailing of catalogues (like the one pictured here) and calendars. Long before it was fashionable for small businesses, Bloom’s Photo Supply was into direct marketing, and we carefully collected the names and addresses of every customer and caller, all of which were entered in the perpetual address files that my Uncle Herman kept.

Sitting in the mezzanine, Ronni and I bickered over whose turn it was to load the metal plate (not fun), load the next item to be addressed (not bad), or turn the wheel (most fun) and discussed what we saw going on all around us. Excess inventory, the bain of every retailer then and now, was a major topic, along with fanciful ways of getting rid of it profitably. While I can never be sure, I think those conversations with Ronni must have been the origin of my now famous story about the invention of Christmas as an inventory management scheme. In that story, the wise men were retail merchants who saw in the humble birth of Mary and Joseph’s son a solution to the already age-old problem faced by retailers everywhere of how to ensure that the year ended without extraneous, highly unprofitable inventory. This is one interpretation of the Christmas story that my Christian Wallace family had never heard until they met me.

By the time we were ten, Christmas season found Ronni and me, the two youngest Bloom cousins, helping behind the counter after school and on weekends, ringing up sales, selling film and other simple products, watching for shop-lifters (you thought that was something new?), recording those sales in the perpetual inventory files kept by my Uncle Herman (there never was nor ever will be again a filer like my Uncle Herman!), and generally learning the business. Everyone worked, including our mothers who were otherwise traditional homemakers, during the month before Christmas, and by Christmas Eve, we were all exhausted. But the lifeblood of retail is the Christmas shopping season — always was so and still is — so our family budget for the next year was written by the ringing of those Christmas cash registers. And I can still hear, ever so faintly, that special ka-ching when I’ve made a big sale.

My Dad was buried on my 50th birthday. My cousin Ronni, just four months younger than me, died in her mid-thirties. Cousin Elliot took over the business from our fathers, built it into something completely non-retail but VERY successful, and sold it many years ago. But if you’re ever in Springfield MA, you can still see the four story mural of long gone camera and photographic supply brands on the exposed wall of Bloom’s Photo Supply’s last retail address, on Worthington Street just up from Main Street.

For me, sitting in my usual place at the keyboard, Christmas Eve will always be special. Years after my Dad retired and I had a business of my own, we talked daily, with me updating him on my business in response to his questions. You can’t fail to hear the ghosts of a retailer’s Christmas past even as my very non-retail business thrived. ”How’s business?” “Business is great.” “Are your clients paying on time? “They sure are, Dad.” “And are their checks clearing the bank?” “Absolutely.” This Christmas Eve, I’d give every one of those checks for another Christmas with my Dad.

December 24th, 2010 |

shelisrael December 18, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Thanks, Naomi. Nice piece.

MA Deviah December 18, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Very touching. Festivals are a time when childhood memories come flooding back. Here’s to remembering all those who moved on and left us the richer in wisdom and experience.

MA Deviah December 18, 2011 at 10:59 am

Hi Shel. Very thoughtful and in many respects it reflects all our thoughts. Indian Christians are about 5 percent of our population but that does not prevent hundreds of millions of Hindus joining in the celebrations. Our shopping malls and boulevards are brightly lit and if you stop at a Bangalore traffic light nowadays you’ll find a vendor at you car window selling bright red elven caps.
Having traveled to India you may be aware that the Hindu religion does not prevent you from praying to any god you wish, and this includes the God worshiped by Christians, Muslims and Jews. Which is why my mother, who is almost 90 wakes up at midnight of Christmas Eve, lights a candle and prays to a picture of Jesus her room. Like she has been doing for decades.
There is something that is so beautiful about Christmas because it celebrates peace like few other festivals do. And therein lies its universal appeal.

shelisrael December 18, 2011 at 11:14 am

I was very impressed how every Indian I got to speak with in any depth, talked with pride about his or her country’s religious tolerance. Almost everyone mentioned that India has 150 million Muslims giving it the 2nd or 3rd largest of all Islamic national populations.

I wish you, your mother and everyone else a peaceful, healthy and joyous holiday season and New Year..

MA Deviah December 18, 2011 at 10:16 pm

I wish India is that completely peaceful place in the sun. While a majority of us live in peace there are extremist bigots – Hindu and Muslim – everywhere. But go deep down into any communal incident in India and you will see that it is political. Many politicians here derive power by keeping the people divided. If there was any one lesson they have learnt from our former colonial rulers it is this. The British were masters of this. The good news now is that the courts have started putting these scoundrels in jail. The India that my son will live in will be a far better place.

maryjeanne potenza December 17, 2011 at 10:21 pm

I really liked reading this, Shel.

Howard Sobel December 17, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Enjoyed reading your reflections on the Holidays. I was born a Jew, my wife of 23 years is Lutheran. Through the years, I got to experienced Christmas “holiday spirit”. For a few beautiful days the world becomes a joyous place with hopes for peace on earth and good will to all. you note that Jesus was a Jew and I personally have a unique perspective on this. I have developed a “personal relationship” and belief in His teachings. it was not the gifts of Christmas a holiday which is really a modern invention. But the spirit of embracing all fellow humans in a loving embrace that makes it so much more meaningful. When religion can lead to belief and love in your fellow human being its an awesome force of beauty and hope. I continue to evolve my personal religion. I love both holidays and the joy that it brings to family and friends. Thanks for posting your experience.

Susan Beebe December 17, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Wonderful story!! Loved it (this year and last year too!)

May we all find peace in our hearts, homes, cities, countries and throughout the world… I too hope (and pray! for that day!! :)

Susan :)

Cathryn Hrudicka December 17, 2011 at 7:38 pm

I was born into a family that observed Christmas, and a mother who considered herself Christian—but we had many discussions/arguments at the dinner table between various family members who considered themselves to be atheists, agnostics, of various Christian denominations, or pan-spiritual. The people in my life now represent almost all the world’s major religions and many spiritual paths. I have had two long-term relationships with Jewish men (the late Joel Weisberg and my current husband, Richard Links), so maybe that makes me a Shiksa Supreme—I am usually the one who remembers when all the Jewish holidays are each year, and I can sing in (faux) Hebrew, from right to left, when I go to temple. Shel, this lovely post of yours really hit home—and that’s the place where the heart is, and where there is Peace on Earth for everyone you share it with. Happy Holidays to ALL my friends!!

Alli December 17, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Great post! Thank you for sharing. I grew up in the 70s and 80s and had a similar experience. Even now when I drive with my children we ooh and ahh at all of the beautiful lights and like to stop and watch all of the children sit with Santa at the Mall. Appreciate your perspective that we can all share a desire for Peace on Earth.

Dayle Adleman December 17, 2011 at 2:11 pm

I so remember those holidays with my Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Barney and wonderful big boy cousins. I hope you and Paul have a very happy and merry Christmas and holiday.

Shel Israel December 17, 2011 at 2:24 pm

I am sooo touched to find my long, lost baby cousin Dale. I had no idea you were following me. I am so very touched. My love to you and your daughter in this nostalgic holiday season.

Susan McPherson December 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm

So touching and relevant for me. Thank you for sharing such detail, Shel. A beautiful piece I will share.

Very best,

Connie Reece December 17, 2011 at 11:49 am

Great post, Shel. You’ll appreciate this story about my mom. One year she said, “Look at this beautiful wrapping paper I found. Isn’t it gorgeous? And it’s not the usual Christmas red and green. I just love it!”

We agreed that the blue and silver paper was indeed beautiful but with the menorahs, we pointed out, it had to be Hannukah paper. She laughed at herself for not making the connection, then went right ahead and wrapped all our Christmas presents in her great wrapping-paper find.

We had huge smiles as we opened our beautifully decorated packages. It was a good reminder to us as Christians (and indeed, Republicans!) of the Jewishness of Jesus–something far too many Christians ignore. The Gospel of John recounts that Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Lights.

Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas to you and Paula. And let there be peace on earth and good will to men (and women, for those who do not recognize that the word “men” can be inclusive).

shelisrael December 17, 2011 at 11:52 am

I love that story, Connie. Thanks so much for sharing. May the new year bring you health, wealth and retweets.

shelisrael December 17, 2011 at 11:33 am

Guest, It’s okay if you want to be the holiday proofread Nazi. But I would respect you more if you identified yourself with a real name, rather than an anonymous handle.

michele December 17, 2011 at 11:09 am

great piece, Shel – thanks for sharing. and very Happy Holidays to both you and Paula!!

Adam Helweh December 17, 2011 at 10:12 am

Beautifully written and excellent reflection Shel. Thank you for sharing.

guest December 17, 2011 at 10:07 am

Nice thoughts, but missing words and commas in places make it hard to read in spots.

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