When I was a kid, Christmas was the most boring day of the year. Of course, everything building up to Christmas was great. Making holiday decorations in school (My second-grade teacher gave us the option of decorating a Ziggy cut-out to either make him look like Santa or a rabbi, depending on your religion, before hanging them up on the corkboard outside the classroom. Try doing that now.); watching Frosty the Snowman on television; eating candy canes; Hanukkah! (it usually came before Christmas); and our school holiday party. All that holiday stuff was awesome.
And then came actual Christmas day. What a yawn fest. You see, for a little Jewish girl, there was never anything to do. My mom was a nurse (still is) and she always volunteered to work on Christmas Eve and Christmas. After all, we didn’t have a party to go to or church to attend and she got time-and-a-half (still does). So my dad stayed home with my brother and me while we surfed the basic channels for something, anything to watch that wasn’t the Twilight Zone (although that usually won out). All the stores were closed. None of the other kids were available to play, assuming they were opening gifts somewhere. Our Hanukkah toys lost their novelty. The weather felt cold and drab. My dad was probably in charge of dinner, which couldn’t have boded well for us kids. Even my grandparents went to Atlantic City every Christmas, leaving their bored grandkids behind.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I understood what us Jews actually did on Christmas. Chinese food and the movies?! I want in. That sounds fun. Better than Twilight Zone marathons. How do I get in on that? It’s not like I didn’t grow up with other Jewish kids. I was raised in the NYC metro area. But while other Jewish kids in my neighborhood were seeing the latest movie at the Metroplex, my brother and I were stranded at home without a way to get there (at this point, my father also worked Christmas).
Perhaps, it was all those Christmases feeling left out of the fun that I started to fantasize what Christmas must’ve been like for all those people who celebrated it. As a kid, my best friend’s house became a gingerbread wonderland. Her mom made popcorn balls and always embellished our hot cocoa with candy canes. I imaged her family went to festive parties where everyone wore snugly sweaters, drank egg nog, and sang carols around a piano. You know, a Hallmark movie.
In college, my then boyfriend invited me to his house for Christmas. Finally, a chance to get in on this magical holiday. You should’ve seen my surprise when they spent most of Christmas watching TV, only to then split immediately after dinner for the movies. Wait. You’re allowed to do that? On Christmas? Apparently, people were breaking some Christian-Christmas rules I had made up in my head and it was ruining my idolized version of the holiday.
Years later, when I was dating my now-husband, I got to experience an Italian Christmas. But then this too threw me off. Their big celebration was on Christmas Eve. And they ate nothing but seafood, until midnight when they produced a plate of sausage. I think the biggest kicker was that my inlaws did not wrap their gifts. Why? Because Santa doesn’t wrap gifts, a tradition passed down from my mother-in-law’s childhood. What’s a Jewish girl to think?
Now that I’m a grown-up with an interfaith family of my own, we get to celebrate Christmas the way we want to, the way I want to and I’m not gonna lie, I aim for some Hallmark-y things. Bob plans the seafood menu a year in advance, making adjustments and tweaks as he sees fit. (The man is passionate about food.) We hang our stockings on our mantle and for the last few years, we’ve gone out and cut down a tree. We light a fire in our fireplace and stuff our selves senseless. The boys have matching Christmas pjs this year too. And we wrap our gifts because I want to see my kids tear into the paper. (I love the suspense). After the kids go to sleep, we all take a turn opening our presents and oohing and ahing. Then the following morning, we wake and have a big breakfast. The kids open their Santa gifts and then we all get gussied up and drive to Staten Island for more celebrating.
But our celebration is no Normal Rockwell painting. We don’t always get around to hanging Christmas lights, especially this year with the weather. And this is the first year, I’ve ever bought egg nog and I’ve been drinking it in the morning before my coffee. Not very festive-like. And we don’t have a piano and I never play Christmas music.
Maybe this post should be titled ‘Being This Jew on Christmas’ because my experiences are obviously unique to me. As a kid, I never got to celebrate the Norman Rockwell Christmas, but who does? As a parent, I’m establishing traditions unique to my interfaith family. Depending on when Hanukkah falls, it could mean having latkes with our rice balls. Or egg nog with my Manishewitz. And when my kids are teens, it could mean a matinee after presents. Whatever. It’s all good because it’s ours.