I grew up in a time when American Jews were struggling to keep their children in the fold. The promise of Christmas presents and the total disregard for anything other than the Christmas holiday in storefronts, school breaks and media blitzes were a powerful enticement to abandon their birthright and claim Santa as their own. My father wasn’t so naïve; he could separate Santa, stockings, and Christmas trees from the celebration of Jesus’s birth. For him, hanging stockings to be filled with candy and oranges was as American as apple pie—even if sometimes the candy curiously looked a lot like Hanukah gilt (gold-wrapped chocolate coins). Hanukah, a minor Jewish holiday at around the same time of year, was traditionally celebrated with a silver dollar from Grandpa Joe and the lighting of candles for eight nights.
Over time, Hanukah took on more significance, and now it’s in direct competition with Christmas. My father passed away, and so did his more cosmopolitan attitude toward the winter festivities. No more stockings in our house, and certainly nothing that resembled a “Hanukah bush” aka a Christmas tree. I know this because I tried to bring one home when I was a teen.
It was Christmas Eve in Miami; the one little tree left in the corner lot was dry and sad-looking. My friend Ann convinced me to take it home, and the salesperson, desperate to close up shop and begin his holiday, gave me the tree for free. Ann and I dragged it home, but it never got past the front door and my mother’s imposing crossed-arms barricade.
My family sat Shiva (Hebrew: שִׁבְעָה šīvʿā, meaning “seven”), the week-long mourning period, after I married my Christian husband. I was the first to do so in the entire extended family. A terrifying omen for my Jewish family. But I was in love and looking forward to my first Christmas.
We were dirt poor and madly in love. We rented a small converted garage. It was so nasty that we had to wear rubber thongs in the shower. We bought a small tree and decorated it with homemade ornaments and lots of tinsel. Charley Brown had nothing on us. On Christmas Eve, we went to the mall and bought one present for each of us—something extravagant and expensive. Presents wrapped and placed under our tiny tree, I went to bed, sugar plum fairies dancing in my head.
Franklin unwrapped the watch with care, and I opened the jewelry box with the diamond tennis bracelet. It was a magical day.
The following day, we went back to the mall and returned the watch and the bracelet. We could never afford to pay for them. Of course, the joy was not in the keeping but in the giving.