Every year at the first sighting of a poinsettia, many of my Jewish friends from New York, Chicago or Los Angeles recall youthful feelings of wistful exclusion. To them I say, boo-hoo. If you want to know real Christmas envy, try growing up Jewish in a frostbitten North Dakota town with a Lutheran church on every other corner and a sign on the main drag that exhorted us to "Keep the Christ in Christmas."
The Fargo of my childhood was a close-knit community with a thick Scandinavian accent. (Cue A Prairie Home Companion, rent the Coen brothers classic and Google "lefse" and "lutefisk" here.) At holiday time, there were Tom & Jerry parties for adults and, for the kids, tree-trimming gatherings with mugs of cocoa floating marshmallows like miniature snowdrifts. Although I knew every carol, even the second verses, there was no mistaking that these festivities were to honor the away-in-a-manger Little Lord Jesus, not to jam in an ecumenical hootenanny with everyone singing praises to Irving Berlin.
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Christianity was writ large. As a result, to the credit of my parents, who wanted to raise my brother, sister and me to honor our identity, a tinseled line divided our family from the holiday.
We attended Hebrew school and a Zionist summer camp, bought trees to plant in Israel — and Yuletide merrymaking stopped at the mezuzah on our front door. To the grumbling dismay of our neighbors, the blue spruce that towered in the front yard wasn't decked out with any twinkling lights — nor did it shelter a nativity scene. Inside, there was no tree facing a stocking-hung fireplace.
On Christmas Day our family didn't even gather with others of our tribe for Chinese food (as I learned only years later was the national custom among Jews) because the only Chinese restaurant was closed. (It also served fluffy Parker House rolls with the egg foo yung, an equally grave concern.) Movie theaters? Shuttered.
I suspect that Fargo's 200 or so other Jews — there was never an official census, even though the mayor, one Herschel Lashkowitz, belonged to my Temple — passed the day as I did: ruminating on the huge hole where Christmas should be. I experienced December as the equivalent of a tropical depression that by the 24th had conflated into an emotional hurricane.
Putting the X in Xmas
The antidote to this envy, I learned, was to move to Manhattan, where Xmas — which is how the holiday deserves to be spelled in places like the Big Apple — immediately struck me as a monster bazaar whose not-at-all-subliminal message was buy, baby, buy. The whole city was done up as one dazzling ornament. Store windows knocked my eyes out. And in my annual trek to ooh and ah in front of the displays, if I didn't make a solemn pilgrimage to St. Patrick's Cathedral, I could easily forget that the hoopla was for an actual religious holiday.
For the first time, I also met Jews who not only admitted that they had a Christmas tree, they claimed to have grown up with one. Although it would have been easy for me to join the ranks of those assimilated Jewish Christmas celebrants, I kept the line in the tinsel intact. Santa never delivered presents to our apartment, and when my older son turned 4, he had to ask me to remind him of the name of "that ho-ho-ho guy."
What kept my Christmas envy in check was not simply the commercial exploitation and devaluation of this splendid holiday, nor was it a sense of otherness: It was my occupation. For more than 30 years, I was an editor on the sorts of women's magazines that every December promise "500 easy ways to deck your hall, trim your tree, shop for and wrap a minivan's worth of unique gifts, bake two-dozen types of cookies from one dough, roast a goose, wear velvet and build a gingerbread house that Stanford White would approve and not gain 10 pounds from cookies and eggnog."
In my mission to help my Christian sisters do up the holiday in cozily sumptuous style, I spent decades of summers — because that's when December magazine issues are produced — encouraging women to whip themselves into a demonic frenzy as they created seasonal perfection. As a result, when the actual holiday rolled around, I was more than relieved that I could be spared the back-breaking work that was required to attain this 24/7, red-and-green festivity.
No way could I live up to the standard of any magazine's fantasy Christmas. For Hanukkah, you wrap a few gifts in whatever blue-and-white paper you can scrounge, throw a brisket in the oven, fry some latkes (potato pancakes), light your menorah, and you’re good to go. That, my friend, is joy.
God, however, has a sly sense of humor. Last year both my sons married women raised with Christmas and have embraced some of their wives' traditions. My husband and I spent Christmas Eve 2011 gathered around a small, charmingly decorated tree at the home of one son and daughter-in-law. Her parents were visiting from Berlin, and I was entranced as they sang "Silent Night" in German while outside snow fell on a quiet street of brownstones. There were stars in the sky and serenity in the frosty air. The holiday was magical.
It wasn't, however, mine. I left, purged of any vestigial envy, happy to know that the next day, if I wanted to, I could sleep late, eat Nova and bagels and invite my Jewish friends over for a Woody Allen marathon.