Let me tell you a dirty little secret that you’ve probably already heard from someone else who was raised Jewish:
Jews, including me, LOVE Christmas.
Not all of us will admit it, and many of us have actually convinced ourselves that, far from loving it, we HATE Christmas for typical woe-is-us-the-constantly-oppressed reasons: Christmas is everywhere; it’s assumed that everyone celebrates it; it’s all a materialistic orgy; it’s a right-wing conspiracy to Christianize America; it forces us to eat Chinese food and go to movie theaters when everyone else is eating ham, drinking egg nog, and giving presents to each other; Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, and Bob Dylan are Jews, so what are they doing recording Christmas albums?… etc.
My love of Christmas started with a perfect storm of holiday TV specials and next-door neighbors who, year after year, celebrated with quintessence. My best friend lived next door, we did everything together, and so I helped put the lights on the house and helped decorate their tree, every year until they moved to Cleveland the summer before I started high school.
I knew all the lyrics to all of the Christmas songs and carols, and I would have worn a Santa hat everyday if I owned one.
Then, one year, we took the train into Manhattan, as we’d done many times before, but this time it was Christmastime, and we walked down 5th Avenue, past all the famously decorated shop windows, we went to Rockefeller Center (pictured here) and beheld the most magnificent sight, the biggest Christmas tree ever, towering over the most idyllic skating rink you could imagine, we ate hot roasted chestnuts from a street vendor, we walked into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which was all decorated out and a choir was singing Christmas songs…
…it was absolutely magical!
Meanwhile, in our home, we did a very strange thing. My parents, obviously, didn’t want me and my two sisters to feel totally left out of the season, so along with lighting the menorah, reciting the blessings, eating latkes, and playing dreidel on Chanukah, my dad would read us “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” on Christmas Eve, and in the morning, in our living room, there’d be presents laid out…
…not under a tree, but on and around our coffee table. No Christmas decorations anywhere else in the house, but the gifts were all wrapped in traditional Christmas wrapping paper.
It was confusing to say the least, but we got presents, so who were we to complain? Am I right?
Still, I wanted a tree SO badly. And one year I did a completely crazy thing.
We lived across the street from the elementary school I went to, and the school had this big, flat lawn in front of it that was perfect for playing football on…
…except for that small tree growing right smack dab in the middle.
We had all sorts of collisions with the damned tree, going long for a pass and suddenly not going anywhere but down to the ground, hard, as the ball soared overhead.
It wasn’t my fault that this tree just happened to be an evergreen, with a distinctly Christmas tree shape to it, and so one winter’s night a couple of weeks before the holiday, my friend and I sneaked across the street with a pruning saw, we ran from bush to bush on the way, and then we crawled, soldier-like, across the frozen lawn, and once at the tree we cut it down as quickly as we could and ran, dragging it across the street. It eventually ended up in our basement, where we were confronted with the fatal flaw of our plan. We had no idea what to do next.
Needless to say, it ended badly. I tried some good old-fashioned Jewish guilt tactics, telling my parents that it was all their fault because they wouldn’t let us have a tree of our own, but that didn’t work. I don’t really remember the punishment, but I do remember feeling a little bad about having killed that tree, and justice was ultimately served, as we ended up tripping over the stump we’d left just about as often as we’d collided with the tree, during our epic half-time football games in those often bitter cold New Jersey winters.