You could always smell the pine needles from our extra-large Christmas trees (before my parents purchased a pre-fabricated tree when I was old enough not to care) from the kitchen where oily latkes were cooking.
The house was always sectioned off, the living room packed full of ornaments, wrapped boxes and wreaths. The kitchen became the room de resistance for Hanukkah celebrations. Artwork created by children (me, my brother, perhaps a non-Jewish friend of mine) hung from the centered chandelier and a large, colorful variety of plastic and wooden dreidels were splayed across the cherry wood credenza. The smell of onions permeated the space and potatoes shavings were left, if only momentarily, in the kitchen sink.
As a family, the four of us were distinctly different in our religious ideology. My father went to parochial school, an altar boy who went on to be the star of his local high school's football team and later, the president of his fraternity. Today he is a vice president of an environmental engineering firm. He doesn't tolerate incompetence, and never has--he's always made that quite clear. Perhaps this is what led to his quiet split from the church. While today he still believes in G-d, he no longer attends church, and has not done so since his days as the quarterback at Antioch High School in Antioch, Calif., save for the occasional guilt-ridden Christmas midnight mass.
My mother grew up worlds away, near Fairfax in Los Angeles. She is the daughter of Orthodox Russian and Hungarian Jews, and grew up with a large crowd of friendly Jewish cousins. As the story goes, way back in the old country, two sisters married two brothers and that is why today, we have so many cousins and second cousins and "uncles" with caterpillar-thick eyebrows still spread out across Southern California.
Though my mother grew up Orthodox, in adulthood she, like my father, stayed away from houses of worship.
Their first-born, my brother, was absorbed in the world of science, science fiction and the unknown. He once told me he'd heard a theory about aliens being the actual start of our world, and for some reason the idea stuck with me, whirling around my brain whenever I think of him.
And then came me, the self-absorbed, rapid-speaking daughter who later pledged her allegiance to her Jewish heritage. As we grew into a family, the holiday season was one that had a special and strange meaning. As Jews, we were subpar, celebrating only the big three--Passover, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah--and as Catholics we were even less.
Over Christmas (and Hanukkah!) vacation, my mother broke out all the holiday decorations and we were off and running. We designated some rooms for Hanukkah and some for Christmas decorations, and went to town making crafts and foods in special shapes while playing Neil Diamond's odd mix of Christmas and Hanukkah albums on the record player.
As I completed grade after grade at a technically secular though highly Christian elementary school, I delighted in being the token "Jew." I told my peers about the oil that lasted eight days while my mom baked menorah shaped sugar cookies (designated as "Hanukkah cookies") for the rest of the class. The other token Jewish child in my grade, Mark, led a much more religious life and one day it dawned on me--why didn't I go to Hebrew school and perhaps most importantly, could I have a bat mitzvah?
I asked my recovering Catholic father and Jewish-in-spirit mother if perhaps, we too could get more involved with the local Jewish community--and we did. We attended the same Reconstructionist synagogue as Mark's family, we joined a Havurah and eventually, I had my own bat mitzvah--a movie-themed affair to which I wore a horrid crushed-velvet purple number.
I worried during this time about the lack of a specific religion in our household and wanted to feel like we belonged somewhere.
Eventually the family split from the synagogue when I went off to college. My brother, the agnostic, who studied politics at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., eventually moved to Colorado to become an expert mapper, which made the holidays a different sort of event for our family. My brother moving away meant that our family was only together during that short amount of time in late December. I lived in nearby Long Beach for the past six years, so I was around often and never really felt the tug of familial loneliness.
This year will be my first time away from home on the first night of Hanukkah. I'll be heading down from San Francisco to Orange County midway through the eight-day celebration with my gentile, freckled boyfriend in tow--squeezing all our holiday cheer into just three days. But I'm looking forward to it, all of it. The shiny plastic dreidels, the latkes (now made vegan, especially for me) and the Christmas tree covered in hand-crafted ornaments by the front door.
I've realized that this is my religion, or at least a major part of it--my family, and our own traditions--the meshugah life of a Jew who wholeheartedly celebrates Christmas.