It’s that time of year again – when my humble Jewish ancestry collides with a lifetime of adopted Christian extravagance to create holiday schizophrenia.
It all started when I was a young child and my parents, an atheist and an agnostic, decided that even though we’d never observed a single Jewish ritual, we should light the Hanukkah menorah each of the eight nights of the holiday. On a good year, that lasted for about four nights. By the fifth night the menorah stood dark and forlorn on the kitchen counter, its annual blanket of dust beginning to coat the colorful globs of melted wax.
Sure, my brothers and I each received a few commemorative gifts (think sweaters and gloves) but Hanukkah was best celebrated by spinning our cheap plastic dreidels, or tops, the miniature four-sided toys that were trotted out from the deepest recesses of the closet, along with the menorah. So, while we were spinning dreidels on the cold basement floor, our Christian friends were whizzing around the neighborhood on dazzling new Schwinn bicycles, talking on their new pastel-colored Princess phones, or watching Gilligan’s Island on their very own brand new portable televisions.
Yes, while Jews spun dreidels, lit candles, and opened our meager gifts, Christians decorated their homes with brilliant and festive lights, hung ornaments on fragrant, fresh-cut fir trees, baked delicious holiday cookies, unwrapped what seemed like hundreds of gifts, and quenched their thirst with a delightful concoction called eggnog. But I wasn’t bitter.
By the time I was 15 I had my first boyfriend, a nice Catholic boy. My older brother had a nice Christian girlfriend, too, so our family abandoned the pretense of celebrating Hanukkah altogether. A few years before, we’d moved from an area in New Jersey that had a sizable Jewish population to Maryland, a state where Jews were considered a notch above leprosy. It seemed less complicated to just try to blend in and open gifts on Christmas like nearly everyone else.
My boyfriend was one of nine kids in his family. His parents embraced the holidays with a passion that rivaled that of the Vatican. They returned home from shopping trips in a station wagon filled to the brim with lavish gifts and credit card debt that crippled them all year long. My pragmatic boyfriend shook his head at their foolishness but his younger siblings shrieked with joy as they opened their gifts. One year he gave me a beautiful leather jacket I’d admired as we strolled through the mall. The next year I opened a small box with a star sapphire ring inside. Christmas was beginning to be very, very good to me.
The street where we lived lit up during the holidays. And while my father never found fault with the bountiful displays of Christian enthusiasm, he drew the line at the gigantic neon menorah an emboldened Jewish neighbor hauled out of his garage every December.
“Jesus Christ!” my father barked the first time he saw the blindingly blue candelabra. “That’s the most garish thing I’ve ever seen. What kind of a Jew puts a neon menorah on his lawn?” He answered his own rhetorical question by walking our cairn terrier under the cloak of darkness so she could urinate each night on the offending ostentation. I suspect that’s when I really began to feel the push/pull of the holidays.
At 24 I married a man who was raised in the Russian Orthodox church. While the marriage didn’t last, for 14 years we celebrated Christmas by trekking through tree farms and decorating our chosen specimen. By then, my mother had created a new family tradition: She taped a charming holiday ornament to each of our gifts. But Christmas also meant visits to my husband’s family, whom I fondly referred to as the Bunkers, in an homage to Norman Lear’s award-winning show, All in the Family, about a patriarch whose bigotry became legendary. The holidays remained filled with joy and angst. And, alas, when I departed the marriage, I forgot to claim the box filled with my mother’s carefully curated ornaments.
My current husband does his part to drive the economy during the holidays but after years of actually hiring a decorator to deck his halls with boughs of holly, he has capitulated. Although he continues to overindulge both his adult children and me, he recently purchased a six-inch gold metallic tree that perches, sans shedding, on the kitchen island to provide just the right degree of festivity for this conflicted Hanukkah-Christmas celebrant.