A Jew On Christmas
Throughout my life it's been a source of contention, me being Jewish and all, that I could do Christmas down to the goose and chestnut stuffing as good and maybe even better than my non-Jewish compadres. Doing Christmas is a tradition passed down through my family that I have defended to Jews and gentiles alike, but now that I have a family of my own, it makes me slightly uneasy. Suddenly I find myself navigating conflicted feelings about religion while continuing a tradition that my mother miraculously pulled off without a ripple of doubt.
My mother is Scottish-born and Jewish, a rare mix during the days of Churchill and World War II, and my sweets-loving grandmother made damn sure that the Millers didn't miss out on anything, especially if chocolate was involved, even if she had to go to the black market to get it. My mother moved to the United States in 1960 and married my father a year later.
Getting into the Christmas spirit was an adjustment for my father. He was born a Jew in Patterson Park, forced to go to Hebrew school and at times fight off the gentiles roused by the annual Jews-killed-Jesus Easter sermon. And he grew up during the no-thrills Depression days when money was tight and splurging on presents just wasn't done. So, he was a bit tepid to my mother's assurance that doing Christmas was harmless fun. My mother finally convinced my father to celebrate his first Christmas after I was born. She bought a tree, put some packages underneath, and waited for the swapping-presents magic to take hold.
We got small Charlie Brown trees at first, but after my father saw how big my brother and my eyes would get on Dec. 25, he was soon rigging up the largest tree that could fit in our living room. The house became so thoroughly festooned with decorations that when people came by the house to see the Yuletide festivities, my father jokingly hung a sign on the tree that read "All Christmas Decorations Half Off."
And so my childhood memories are filled with images of sitting in the dark living room with my younger brother watching the Christmas lights blinking over the gifts under the tree, and the special cold I felt while I took my father's hatchet and trimmed the base of the Christmas tree for the ill-fitting stand. Apparently that struggle was part of the holiday tradition since my parents didn't get a new stand until after I graduated college.
By the time I hit high school the questions started. Every year someone--be it friend or stranger--would ask why we had a Christmas tree as though we were mooching off of what for most is a religious holiday without spending a minute in the pews. They'd probe away hoping to find a reasonable explanation or at least a non-Jew in the family tree.
I tried to shrug off our Christmas celebration as an advanced case of assimilation, very much like how Christians usurped their love for evergreens from the Druids, or for that matter how the holiday grew out of early Roman Christians' backlash against the festivals of Dionysus and Saturnalia.
But somehow my explanation of getting a tree and exchanging gifts as a seasonal thing, no different than getting a pumpkin and trick or treating, never settled the question. The comparison has raised the ire of both Christians, who resent the trifling treatment of a marquee holiday, and Jews, who chalk me up as just another lost member of the tribe.
Now with my own little startup family, I'm turbo-driving this family custom, sharing with my daughters their birthright of a pine-scented childhood and buck tooth-grinning Polaroids of them clutching a Hot Wheels track. My wife, born a nonpracticing Jew, calls it the Cohen Family Christmas. She quickly settled around the tree and these days has a knack for buying the perfect present. My two little girls, of course, love it. My in-laws think we're freaks.
But lately, some reservations have been clouding my Christmas cheer. It lies partly in my distaste for the Christmas industry and partly in my concern about providing some kind of Jewish upbringing for my kids--did I just say that? Right now there's not much of that in my house, and I don't want a Christmas tree to be the spiritual center by default, so I'm lighting a menorah and talking about the Maccabees to my daughters.
Lighting a candle seems one of the more religiously potent but simple deeds that I can do. It's quietly awe inspiring to hear the snap of the flint, watch the flare of the wick, and think that this simplistic act goes back 3,000 years to King Solomon and the First Temple. I can hear the chortles of the religious faithful, who would admonish my dumbed-down practice. During the endless lectures throughout my six years in an Orthodox Hebrew school I was shocked to learn that Judaism, after surviving centuries of persecutions, was an endangered religion thanks to my generation succumbing to pop culture.
And they may have a point--hence my infrequent solo appearances at Beth Israel Synagogue--but I was at relative peace with my quandary, until I had kids. With kids looking at you everything you do or don't do sends a message. Little life views can be set in stone with one ill-timed snide remark or while fielding questions about death and God during bedtime stories.
But, to be perfectly honest, it's not the collision between my Judaism and my family's Christmas traditions that gives me trouble. It's my inability to do Christmas like my mom that's got me stumped. I cooked a goose once. It was OK. But it couldn't touch smelling that awesome bird simmer all day in our old Mount Washington home. There is baked potatoes and rice, an old English dish that I suspect goes back earlier to my Russian roots, and my mother's triple-decker desserts that were equal parts engineering feat and culinary masterpiece. How can I ever live up to that? Still, this year I'm getting a tree and paying close attention to how my mother makes her gravy, because the memories are too good to leave behind.
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide
The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts
The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford
Divided Royalties (6/9/2010)
SoundExchange seeks out artists to give them money earned from digital transmissions
Horse Sense (2/11/2009)
Baltimore City and B&O Railroad Museum Team Up to Construct a New Stable For Displaced Arabbers
Feeling Blue (1/21/2009)
Some People Are Born Freaks. Jim Hall Turned Himself Into One.
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