Saturday, December 24, 2005

I love Christmas. No, really!

It has come to my attention that the self-portrait I've painted here may not be entirely true to life. I realized it last week when a fellow blogger confessed, as if admitting to a puppy-killing spree or a career in telemarketing, that he is not Jewish. "You may hate me for this," he said, "but... well... I love bacon. There, I said it."

People, people, people... I am not some kind of uber-Jew. Jewish in culture and personality, yes, but my religious observance is spurred only by celebrations, funerals and rare instances of obligation or guilt. Holidays are an excuse to eat something naughty and wear something nice. My dating pool spans the breadth of the world's races and spiritual persuasions.

And I love bacon too.

I do write a lot about being Jewish, and I suppose my cultural identity is partly responsible, but mostly it's just good material. Let's face it: My people are like cartoons. The mothers, the grandmothers, the issues with food... You can't make this stuff up.

In fact -- and you may find this hard to believe in light of my Hannukah poem -- Christmas is my favorite holiday of all. There's something about the smells and the sounds and the warm fuzziness of it all that makes me feel like a small child in footie pajamas, wrapped in an oversized quilt.

Every year when I was a small child my Grandma escorted me to Santaland at Macy's department store in Manhattan. It was the pinnacle of my year. I was intoxicated by the smell of pine, the merry elves, the warm, glittering lights and ornaments and tinsel I'd never experienced at home. And candy -- there was always so much candy.

On my third Christmas -- 1978 -- we sat in the front of a mostly empty bus on our way from Queens to 34th Street. Maybe the driver liked my curls, or my wide-eyed excitement, or my Grandma (she was a real knockout back then)... Perhaps he was just having a long and lonely day. Whatever the reason, he was hell-bent on conversation.

"Are you going to visit Santa, little girl?" he asked me sweetly.

I sat silent and played with the rings on Grandma's hand.

"Have you been to the North Pole before?"

I tugged at my mittens and didn't answer.

"What are you going to ask Santa to bring you for Christmas?" He was a patient man, I'll give him that.

I stared out the window while we went on like this for a dozen blocks or so, the bus driver lobbing festive queries across the aisle and me playing deaf and dumb, until finally I leaned against my grandmother, cupped my little mitten around my mouth and whispered, "Grandma, I don't think he knows we're Jewish."

In December the following year, I came home from the small church where I attended nursery school (my Mom was the music teacher there; it made sense at the time) eager to share the story I'd learned in class that day: The Tale of Baby Cheeses. Throughout December and into the new year I recounted the miracle to anyone who would listen. Needless to say, my version was...a little off, but people seemed to find it entertaining still.

That was the year the Bensons moved into the white columned house up the street. They had one little girl the same age as me, and a boy about a year older than my baby brother. We were all fast friends. The Bensons were from Oklahoma; their traditions, canned chicken soup and charming Southern lilts opened up an exciting new world to me -- especially since I had yet to enter the public school system and shake my Forest Hills accent. When Jennifer caught sight of the menorah glowing in my kitchen it was the first time I'd heard the word "purdy." When I was greeted at the door by her cockerspaniel, Cookie, it was the first time she'd heard the word "dawg." One year my brother got antsy about his Hannukah presents and enlisted his buddy to investigate the scene: Little Stephen, slick as Bond, sauntered up to my mother and asked, "So, uh... what's Matthew getting for Jewish this year?"

I'll distract the Mommies; You start looking for the G.I. Joes.

Matt and I were always invited to help trim the Bensons' tree. Hour after blissful hour we lifted delicate baubles and figurines from their cardboard cradles and listened, rapt, to the sentimental history behind each one. While my family lit candles that burned in the kitchen for an hour or two, the Bensons' entire home twinkled and glowed from the moment the sun went down and long into the night. Their house smelled like eggnog, mine smelled like grease and potatoes. We had an eight-inch menorah, they had an eight-foot tree. At seven years old, where would you want to be? They had to kick me out each night when it was time to go to bed.

Since then I've developed a deeper fondness for the traditions of my own wintertime holiday. (Though it's not widely known that Hannukah is barely a blip on the radar in other countries around the world. American consumerism made a mountain out of that molehill.) But I will never shed my love for Christmas, and tomorrow morning I'll celebrate with special touches to my Sunday breakfast: a dash of cinnamon in my French toast; a dash of nutmeg in my French roast; and of course, a sweet, smoky slab of bacon to round out the meal.

Happy Holidays everyone.


Barbara said...

I just realized how very much you remind me of my friend Liz Poliner, who recently published her first book "Mutual Life and Casualty." This sounds so much like a chapter from her wonderful book. I will happily loan it to you if you would like to read it.

I was also reminded of those questions that continue to pop up in stores, at the dentist's office, everywhere: "Are you ready for Christmas?" "Have you finished your Christmas shopping?" The presumption is that the entire world celebrates Christmas! I always say "Yes" instead of bothering to explain. It just makes them feel guilty for asking otherwise.

I hope your December 25th is wonderful in its many traditions!

Washington Cube said...

Merry Christmas. Sorry...I just could not resist. :)

Velvet said...

This was very well written. It makes me miss the tri-state area.

AW / Barbara / Cube - I'm glad I'm not the only person reading blogs today!!

Lior said...

Guten yontuf, meidalach.

Here's to dreams of 8 foot tall hannukiahs covered in glitter, lights and frosted snow.

...come to think of it, the Germans make the best of both worlds: a christmas tree decorated with real candles. It's quite the spectacle, and even as a child I always wondered how they had balls to put OPEN FLAMES ON A TREE. But I guess that's what Germans do.

Merujo said...

Happy holidays, whichever ones you want! (I'm celebrating Jewish Christmas early with some Chinese and Netflix tonight.)

One of my friends grew up with a Christmas tree every year in his very Jewish New Jersey home. They called it the Hanukkah Bush, which I absolutely LOVE.

If you have a free night sometime this week and want to see the wonderfully cheesy holiday light displays up in Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg, drop me a line. We can buy a coffee at the drive-thru Starbucks and enjoy the Schmaltz o' the Season. :-)

Reya Mellicker said...

The baby Cheeses?? That is so good, so very good. Thank you.

Merriest smoky bacon breakfast Christmas!


The Daily Rant said...

I loved this post! You have a fantastic way with words that create images. Wonderful.

And I want to go to the cheesy display of holiday lights with you and Merujo! Man, why why why why do I have to be in Arizona??? Drinking a Starbucks in 80 degree weather is nowhere NEAR the same.

Happy Hanukkah and Merry Whatever.

the deal said...

Hey Al-
Merry Christmas to you!
Here in Cleveland, by the time you read this, we'll have unwrapped our presents and headed over to Grandma's house for bagels and bacon like all good, x-mas loving Jews!
Happy Chrismahanakwanzaka everyone!

Also, it's fitting that the word verification I have in order to post this comment is "bfahh." Isn't that just what Scrooge would say if he had a little lox lodged in his gullett?

Anonymous said...

it's about time you wrote about this! but come on now. I think you MUST be smoking something, cause I never had a southern lilt, I don't think I've ever said PURDY in my life, and I never owned an easy-bake oven (confirmed by mom, who btw says hello and merry christmas and happy hannukah) but I totally believe that Stephen asked what Matt was getting for "Jewish." :)
And I do have many fond memories of trimming the tree with you. But I also have fond memories of your house: potato pancakes, dreidel games and hebrew school(which I thought was soooo cool and couldn't figure out why you didn't like it). We had christmas, but you got a fabulously cool batmitzvah. :)
Love you dearly (as you darn well know), even if you do spell my last name wrong. hee hee hee!
Happy New Year Dani!

Rurality said...

Oh no... now I've got the Tale of baby cheeses to go along with "Run baby Jesus, run!" :)

That was great!

Gordon said...

That was great, I don't eat bacon, haven't done since 1989, but now I want some. Although I did get the best smoke salmon and scrabbled egs for breakfast on Dec 25 morning. I knew there was a reason I went home. Happy holidays.

Buffy said...

I've hid the bacon and chocolates. But since I know where they are....there's really no point. Is there? Mmmm. Nutmeg.

Anonymous said...


Like yourself, I take pride in my cultural identity, but I don't wear it like armor as so many others do. I've enjoyed a good bacon cheeseburger in the past, and I cut that out more for health reasons than anything related to keeping Kosher.

Hey, that's a good selling point--"Keep Kosher and lose weight faster!" ;)

Happy Hanukkah and Holidays to you, and I'll see you in 2006. ;)

Martin (aka Boztopia)

I-66 said...

Happy Holidays to you too...

...I will now find a bacon-y food to welcome the morning. You have inspired me.

Kayla said...

I am a christmas lovin' Jew, too. Not that I need to confess that to you - because you know me, and you most certainly know this about me (The only thing Jewish about me is my mom and my nana...). I love the tree, I love the lights, I love the massive pile of gifts. I love the thought of huge families gathered around the tree. I love Christmas movies. My secret? I have a stocking hung for myself in my apartment and christmas lights on my windows... (I also have no idea where my menorah is, and if I did - couldn't remember the prayer to say when lighting the candles.... actually, when I lit my menorah in years past I would say "We had light for 8 nights, yay us!").

Chairborne Stranger said...

Potato pancakes are pretty good, as is bacon, and bagels, and just about all the food you keep writing about.

Paul said...

Love that picture.