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It’s the Most Wonderful Time–(to be Jewish, really)

Xmast +

Most people who do Christmas* tend to think of Jewish children with a bit of pity. “Bless her heart,” (now there’s a phrase that took years for this Jewish girl to understand and it’s probably also good fodder for the pen) “she has to miss out on Christmas and all the fun. Well, at least they have Chanukah (or however you spell it.)” *My use of the verb “do” both dates me and stumbles me, but I want to include a wider group than, say, Christians, who were born or converted to the occasion because in America many have forgotten that Christmas is a religious holiday. It’s almost ubiquitous.

In my youth, two things about that missing-out-on-Christmas line didn’t apply to me. The first may have been unusual. I didn’t miss Christmas because I hardly knew anyone who celebrated it. I didn’t know what it was about. My friends weren’t getting something that I didn’t get. I lived in the Jewish end of town, thanks to restrictive covenants still operating in the early ’60s. We kids didn’t even know it was the Jewish end of town, but my school was almost all Jewish. The many Catholic kids in the area crammed their oh-so-many-baby-boomer-bodies into St. Nicks. Boy, I bet they had Christmas, 40 to a classroom. We didn’t know them, mostly.

The Protestant kids in the neighborhood had the extraordinary opportunity to learn about being a minority. My walking-to-school buddies were fascinated by the blue-lit aluminum tree-like shape that revolved in Jimmy’s living room. We all grilled him about his family’s unusual alternative observance. When was he going to hear that again?

Yes a few families toyed with Chanukah bushes—also aluminum and also lit blue. I shopped the idea gingerly at my house and dropped it like a hot latke when my Mother erupted.

What Christmas meant for me was a dressed-up, lunched-out trip downtown to see the Christmas decorations–especially the windows at Field’s and Carson’s, the Friday after Thanksgiving. There was nothing black about it, except the 4:30 sky on the L ride home.

The second fiction was more subtle and has gotten even more complicated, as has almost everything else. Chanukah was a refreshingly unreligious holiday in my relatively-observant Jewish home. We played intense games of dreidel (why yes, it is a gambling game,) ate a lot of chocolate, lit candles, sang songs and exchanged gifts–socks and underwear, mostly. There were a few dreidels and stars hung in our apartment. It wasn’t dressed up like a Christmas competitor or a consolation prize. It was something most kids in the neighborhood had and, while I had a slightly more old-fashioned version of it than many (the gambling for chocolate became too heated and we had to switch to nuts in-the-shell) it was a small, serviceable holiday.

Growing up eventually meant making some choices. I had housemates, boyfriends, then a husband, who weren’t Jewish. To tree or not to tree? I lived in a few houses where trees happened and I avoided discussion or participation. When asked I voted NO on tree. I acquiesced to tree when my pre-ex-husband plead his case that this had been what was wrong with the whole marriage (reductionist crazy talk but once you start the reducto it’s all rather small.) I have decided that trees, like so many things, might be the subject of passionate position until one actually has a little perspective on life (and a little less passion in general. It’s a tree. I live in Oregon. I have a tree on my license plate. I live in the tree-full-est part of Portland where I even have to pay, happily, a too-goddam-many-trees tax. I like trees but feel, like animals, they belong outside.)

I had years of alternating Scroogedom and buy-in. (And all sorts of Christmas experiences, from boot-hockey games at the North pole to High Mass (it can be the best entertainment in Vancouver BC) to Lutherans who would put Lake Wobegon to shame, to many drunken parties where I was recruited to play carols–sometimes with my job depending on it, to every manner of cookied and nogged excess. I rather liked all the variations on excess.) And then I finally achieved enlightenment (well, on the Christmas issue, anyway.)

My bolt of lightening, or insight or whatever: This is the best time of the year to be Jewish. There are the neutrals and the positives. The neutrals: I’m not mangled by the mind-body-time-expectation-wallet suck of the retail holiday. My presents are restricted to wine, chocolate, nuts and cash. It’s an unusually good time to buy the first three; I buy bags, bars and bottles by the dozen or half-dozen as I do my ordinary shopping, so I have a bar or bottle to hand to anyone whenever the mood strikes me. I try to err on the side of generosity and surprise. I don’t really wrap.

I don’t have to worry about the compromise or confusion of a significant spiritual moment with requirements financial, familial, logistical, decorative, sartorial, alimentary or entertaining. I respond appropriately (or no more inappropriately than the least appropriate goy in the group.)

I’m often invited to gatherings where I dress up or down as necessary, make or purchase foodstuffs to share, grab a bag, bar or bottle on my way out the door, and catch up with old friends, meet new ones or sing and play the piano badly, or not.

On the positive side, this is a time when most people around me are so harried and hassled, preoccupied and stressed, over-committed and out of their element or trying madly to escape their element and engaged in such strange and strenuous activities to do so, that no one would notice if I should happen to space out, nap, introspect or otherwise engage less in the world than I might normally feel pressure to do. In other words, when one is not part of the increasing spin, that spin itself can allow for a bit of a holiday. It’s a foul time to travel and it’s a fine time to nest.

There are a few negatives, of course: sound pollution in stores, elevators, gyms (gyms? why would yoga need Christmas music?) and traffic jams. The incessant, mostly awful music is a good reminder to avoid shopping. And the traffic? Well it’s one really lousy thing, isn’t it. I can’t have it all. But that sense of being the other? Each year it seems like a more comfortable quilt to wrap around me as I nestle into the window seat and count my chocolate bars. We Jews don’t encourage conversion, but if you’re going a bit crazy or your tired of the frazzle, it might be one way to find a little peace next year.