Journeying in and out of Christmas


By Ronnie Caplane

I didn’t “marry out” just to celebrate Christmas. But when my Prince Charming turned out not to be Jewish, the opportunity to celebrate that most wondrous of all holidays seemed a delightful side benefit.

Throughout my childhood, Christmas was the forbidden fruit, a mysterious and magical world into which Jews didn’t dare tread.

“Jews don’t celebrate Christmas,” my mother reminded my sister and me every time we admired a house done up for the holiday.

This, we knew, wasn’t really true. There were many families in our predominately Jewish neighborhood who celebrated Christmas. Some families had trees, and there was the man who belonged to our temple who dressed up like Santa Claus and handed out candy canes at school. Even in our own house there were vestiges of Christmas–stockings that some long-forgotten family friend had made for Caryl and me which were always filled with trinkets on Christmas morning, and the family dinner we had later that day.

But according to our mother, none of that counted. Celebrating Christmas meant a wreath on the door, lights on the house, and a tree in the front window–public displays.

And that’s what Caryl and I wanted, to live in one of those houses with a brightly lit Christmas tree in the front window. We wanted to experience the joy of decorating it, to have it adorn our living room and to know the excitement of waking up to colorfully wrapped presents beneath its branches.

We nagged. We whined. We appealed to our mother’s rational side, rattling off names of Jewish families who had trees.

“It’s wrong,” our mother would say dismissively.

“But Christmas isn’t a religious holiday,” we’d argue. “It’s cultural. It’s American. We don’t believe in Santa Claus.”

Our mother wasn’t persuaded.

She was threatened by Christmas, afraid that the glamour, glitz and abundance of the holiday would co-opt her Jewish children. She was of the World War II generation–those who knew it was easier and safer not to be Jewish.

So it was no wonder that the first year Joe and I were together I jumped at the chance to do Christmas. I bought a tree, then hit the local Wal-Mart and marched into the previously forbidden zone to load up on Christmas candy, cookie cutters, ornaments, tinsel, lights and candy canes. It was a new world, where everything was plentiful and cheap.

This was Joe’s holiday, and he was going to celebrate whether he wanted to or not. And the fact of the matter was that he’d rather not. His childhood memories of the occasion were not good ones. Growing up in a poor family, Christmas for him was a day filled with disappointments. It was also a day when his father got an early start on his daily alcoholic binge.

But I thought I could undo all of that by creating new memories. Besides, Joe’s parents would be staying with us, and I wanted to make the holiday festive for them–and for me. I surprised everyone with a tree.

Decorating it wasn’t exactly the sipping-eggnog, watching-a-crackling-fire-in-the-fireplace, warm, cozy experience I had envisioned. I decorated it myself, struggling with an unwieldy tree. Removing limbs to get the tree into its stand, I ruined my best kitchen knife. By the time I was done, the living room floor was covered with tinsel, pine needles, and shards of colored glass from broken balls. Rather than a work of art, the final product was a listing, unbalanced, rather pathetic-looking tree.

What had started out as a one-time lark became a tradition. My in-laws began to count on it, and then, when we had children, so did they. Christmas became a burden for me. It wasn’t even the work. It was the emotional impact of having a tree in my house. It felt wrong, unnatural. It wasn’t my holiday, and going through the motions made me uncomfortable. It was so non-Jewish. And I worried about the message I was sending our children who, in all other respects, were being raised Jewish.

My mother’s words and fears came back to me. Unlike my sister and me, my children did have another religious option, one that I did not want to encourage.

I stopped buying a tree, and Joe took over. Every year he went shopping for one a little later and coming home with a tree that was more bedraggled than the previous year’s, until one year he didn’t even make it to the tree lot. He dragged in a pine branch from our backyard, put some tinsel on it, and pronounced it a Christmas tree.

That was our last Christmas, although we didn’t know it at the time. Joe’s mother passed away that year and, with his father having died several years before, we no longer had to celebrate Christmas for their sake. We talked about what to do. Joe was happy to give Christmas up, but there were the children to consider. Tentatively we asked them how they would feel about it.

“It’s fine with me,” our then-eleven-year-old son said. “It’s not really our holiday anyway. We have Hanukkah”

Our daughter agreed, and with that we were through with Christmas. For our own separate reasons, Joe and I were relieved. I was also reassured that my children knew who they were in spite of all the Christmas hype.

Now we enjoy Christmas as onlookers and have our own Jewish Christmas Eve tradition that feels right: Chinese food and a movie.