Why Not Christmas?

Why we did not celebrate Christmas growing up, I do not exactly know.  Yes, we are Jewish.  But Christmas, I've since learned, is not exclusively a Christian holiday.  My in-laws are not Christian and they celebrate Christmas and Easter.  Still.  Growing up Jewish in the 1970's in Omaha meant that Christmas morning was a very sad time for me, when we sat in our house eating fried matzo trying to pretend that the rest of the kids in the world were not having the most wonderful day of their lives, opening up presents from a fat man with a white beard and a red suit who drove a flying sleigh and lived at the North Pole with a bunch of elves.  Where was Jesus exactly?  Oh yeah, Santa brought him down the chimney in a crib.  Right?  That part of the story is still a little fuzzy.  Anyway.

Even though we never had a Christmas tree, it seems to me that we spent a good deal of time opining about them.  Real trees were good because they smelled good.  Fake trees were bad because they were fake.  Popcorn and cranberries were tasteful.  Silver store bought tinsel was not.  Colored lights were fine, as long as they weren't flashing.  White lights were best.  Trees left up too long into January were signs of deeper issues.

Of course, as all good Jewish parents do, my parents tried to make the best of Hanukkah.  It lasts 8 times as long as Christmas, they argued.  Yes, but the gifts and good cheer were much more than eight times as austere.  By the time I was in high school, I got it.  We celebrated our persecution by learning to be happy with the pencil, the two dollar bill, the dreidel, the deck of cards, the book about why we celebrate Hanukkah, the shirt, the pants, and the pair of socks.  My friends learned, in hushed whispers that we were Jewish and that Jewish kids didn't celebrate Christmas.  Why?  I didn't really know why.  But that was just the way it was.  Meredith must have known I was Jewish, but she was horrified when she found out that I had never had a Christmas tree.  I had horrified her before, by sprouting my first gray hair during choir, by not shaving my legs.  But the horror of not having a Christmas tree out horrored all the other horrors.

My mom has battled Christmas envy her whole life.  In elementary school, the teachers felt sorry for her and her brothers and the couple of other Jewish kids and let them decorate the school Christmas tree.  She still talks about how much she loved decorating that tree.  And Christmas carols? Don't get me started.  My mom loves Christmas carols, especially the ones written by Jews.  She made a compromise with her mom.  She could sing Christmas carols, as long as she didn't actually say the word Jesus, but just mouthed it.  Try it.  It's not easy, but my mom's great at it.

And then, in the middle of December one Saturday morning when I was in high school, the door bell rang.  I opened it to find a Christmas tree.  Meredith had insisted she spend her allowance on this present for me, her mother sheepishly explained to my mother.  My mom couldn't have been more excited.  And confused.  "Where are we going to put it?" she blurted.  "We can take it back, really," Meredith's mom insisted.  No, my mom could not let this, our first real Christmas tree, go.

We thanked them, hugs all around, and shut the door.  "Where are we going to put it?" my mom asked my dad.

"That's your problem," my dad said from behind the newspaper.  She wanted to put it in the living room.  But what would the grandparents say?  Not to mention the neighbors?  No.  If we were going to have a Christmas tree, the only possible place was in my room.  Then, at least, she could blame it on me.  Oh yeah, and we had to call it a Hanukkah bush.

We spent the weekend making ornaments out of dough - stars of David, yamakas, menorahs, symbols of Judaism I didn't understand any better than crosses and angels.  We strung popcorn and cranberries and realized why more people do not string popcorn and cranberries for their Christmas trees.  And every day I found my mom, sitting on my bed gazing at our Hanakkah bush.  "Doesn't it smell wonderful?" she asked.  I thought maybe there was a small chance that Santa would be tricked and come to our house that year.  But no, apparently Santa is more discerning than that.


  1. This brings back lots of memories. And do you remember what happened when your father dragged the tree down the carpet after the holidays?

  2. REALLY enjoyed this story! A true pleasure to meet you last night.

  3. love it ...would LOVE a current installment on this subject...Jenny Kuzbek

  4. Here's the abbreviated update, Jenny. This year (and last!) friends of ours gave us a tree from their parents' farm! How cool is that? Our decorating skills though leave a whole lot to be desired. Santa comes to Madison. Our first grader is jaded. Our pre-schooler and fifth grader, still believers. Merry Snowy Skiing Christmas to you and your family!