The push/pull of the Christmas season was intense when I was a child. Let’s face it, in the 1950’s, it was tough to be a Jewish child in an almost entirely Christian town. Particularly, if that young Jew thought holiday decorations and lights and greenery were completely alluring. It was tough to be the only child in her class who couldn’t talk about when her Christmas tree went up, because there was never a Christmas tree going up, not counting the musical box one my mother would pull out of the closet on Xmas eve for a few hours. It was pathetic to repeatedly draw small Christmas trees on paper as consolation during the weeks leading up to Christmas. They looked like this:
It was pathetic to repeatedly draw small Christmas trees on paper as consolation and compensation during the weeks leading up to Christmas. They looked like this:
My Christian friends were astonished if they discovered that I actually lived through December without a Christmas tree, so I largely kept it to myself. It seemed inconceivable to them on the occasions when I decided to share my little secret. At some level, being denied that particular pleasure was inconceivable to me as well. To this day, a small piece of this desire hangs on. Now, I compensate by adorning my house with some seasonal decorations that I like, without any of the accompanying agony of a faith betrayed. The commercialization of Christmas is fully exploited in Japan. Grand illuminations, gift giving and special foods have been incorporated into their end of year celebrations, all aspects of it without religious significance.
To this day, a small piece of this desire hangs on. Now, I compensate by adorning my house with some seasonal decorations that I like, without any of the accompanying agony of a faith betrayed. The commercialization of Christmas is fully exploited in Japan. Grand illuminations, gift giving and special foods have been incorporated into their end of year celebrations, all aspects of it without religious significance or a thought about it. Nicely done, in my opinion, although the piped -in sounds of constant covers of carols on the sidewalks of Kyoto, quickly gets cloying.
Most of the houses in my town in the 1950’s were adorned on the outside with only a tasteful evergreen wreath, topped off by a cheery red real satin bow, on their front door. Many houses had small electric candles in all their windows. You could usually get a glimpse of a tree through one of the windows. This was the era of glittering tinsel and bubbling string lights, creating a magical world, particularly at night.
Sad too, to be the only child in a large school auditorium, who “sort of” bowed her head when Jesus’ name was mentioned as we all sang Christmas carols. Some carols were more challenging than others. My anxiety level would rise. The most head bowing occurred during the singing of “Away in a Manger.” I was acutely self-conscious in those early elementary grades and with each song, confronted the personal dilemma of a minority child: to bow or not to bow. By second grade I knew all the lyrics of every Christmas carol. I still do. The only one that hasn’t gotten stale for me is ‘O Holy Night,” particularly Johhny Mathis’ version.
The glamorous seasonal corsage pins that women pinned to their coat lapels could only be admired, although they were only for grown-ups. If they were covered with a dusting of snow, so much the better. It’s those small touches.
I could easily wander downtown after school or on weekends. I could count on the downtown Woolworths to have counters full of Christmas baubles. This was the age before everything for sale was wrapped so I could touch and stroke the dazzling baubles to my heart’s delight. This was always a solitary and almost meditative experience.
I was able to go all out on wrapping presents to be delivered to my Father’s best customers. This was an approved activity, and I happily let my Christmas freak flag fly.
This was an era when the waters of assimilation were increasingly tested. Some Jews decided it was ok to have a tree. Their controversial betrayal was whispered about behind their backs. Some Jewish kids believed in Santa. Some families gave gifts on both Chanukah and Christmas. These choices did not come easily and were not without costs of confusion and charges of hypocrisy. Where do you decide to draw the line? Why draw the line at all?
In college, my Jewish roommate and I, after a brief consultation, made a trip to the local drugstore and bought an artificial tree with lights on it for our dorm room. It brought us both guilty pleasure. I never told my parents.
In today’s world, none of these dilemmas of how and what to celebrate seem so significant and life altering or cause any angst. There’s so much unhappiness in our world, why not decorate, if it brings happiness?
Warning However: if you’re my children, I really don’t want to see a Christmas tree in your house, although just about anything else is fine and dandy. I can’t give you a rational explanation.