By Harriet P. Gross
Since our publication date this week coincides with Christmas Eve, I’ve been reminiscing about Christmas when I was much younger, before the “December dilemma.” During my childhood, we Jews knew we were Jews, looked at our neighbors’ colorful wreaths and lights, then went home to eat latkes (when the stars were also in the Chanukah conjunction).
The earliest Christmas Eve I can remember was when I was 4 or “rising” 5. Our next-door neighbors were Uncle Dan and Aunt Rose — not blood relatives, but such good friends of my parents’ for so many years that the titles were quite natural. Aunt Rose worked for a government office that had a holiday party, with Santa, every year; that year, since she and her husband had no children of their own, she asked for permission to take me. My folks didn’t object.
Prompted by that woman I loved, I stood in a long line of kids waiting to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas. When my turn came, I sat. But I didn’t ask for anything. Instead, I told him I was Jewish. I got a gift anyway, since Santa passed out presents to all the children. But I never went to that party again.
In kindergarten, we made Christmas gifts out of clay — ashtrays, not dreidels. Both the concept and the item would be verboten today in a public school like mine. But then, that’s the way things were. In grade school, we had to save the red and green foil caps that appeared on quart milk bottles during holiday season, and bring them in to turn into little pretend bells for the giant tree standing front and center in the main hallway. After we hung them, we sang Christmas carols.
There weren’t a lot of Jewish boys and girls in my school, but there were enough for our parents to have registered a real complaint if anybody cared to. Nobody did. Things were different back then. Probably our parents didn’t want to make waves. But maybe they were secure enough in their Judaism to figure we were, too, and they knew we wouldn’t become Christians ourselves because of a few days of bells and songs. I like to think that was the real reason, because the truth is, all of us are still Jewish.
When I moved up to middle school, I began finding a present, brightly wrapped in red and green, inside our kitchen storm-door every Christmas morning. This lasted through junior high. After that first year, I would get up early to open the door and see what “Santa” had left for me. That’s what the little “To-From” tag said, anyway: “From Santa.” I knew the gift was from Mrs. Connolly, the mother of my good friend Shirley, up the block. (An embroidery set was my favorite.)
As the two of us grew older together, Mrs. Connolly started a campaign to convince my mother that I should go to Ursuline High with Shirley. My mother said no. She didn’t stress religious reasons, rather said — rightly enough — that she didn’t see any need to pay private-school tuition when there was a perfectly good public high school within walking distance. Again: I’m sure she didn’t want to make an enemy of a friendly neighbor, and not sending me to a Catholic school was such a given, there wasn’t any need to mention it. The Santa stuff stopped when Shirley and I didn’t attend the same school any more.
One old childhood memory was reprised in somewhat newer times: 25 years ago, when I celebrated my first Chanukah in a new city. Then a Christian woman from our neighborhood bridge game stopped by my house with one of those red-and-green presents. I thanked her warmly, invited her in for coffee and saw she was totally nonplussed because I hadn’t yet put up a Christmas tree. I wasn’t going to, I told her, with the reason why. I also told her our Chanukah story, showed her my menorah, and explained how it “works.”
So when we walked toward the door to say goodbye, I was congratulating myself for my contribution to furthering interreligious understanding — but prematurely, I found out. Because as I thanked her once again for coming, and for the gift, she turned around, looked back into my living room, and said incredulously, “You really mean it, don’t you? You’re really not going to have a Christmas tree!”
Yes, Virginia: I really did mean it!
By Harriet P. Gross