The Bronx: December 1954. The elementary school in our Jewish neighborhood celebrated Christmas with unbridled enthusiasm.
Despite the fact that hardly any of the children at PS 95 had a Christmas tree at home, we cut and colored ornaments. One teacher had a decorated tree on a table in the back of the room, and we placed her gifts there. We sang carols with reverence: "Fall on your knees. Oh hear the angel voices. Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born."
We put on Christmas plays attended by our parents and old-country grandparents. Perhaps because in the 1950s Jewish people desired a quiet assimilation, there was not a complaint that Christmas was a religious holiday -- albeit not ours.
The crèche: I recall the pangs of tenderness I felt for the baby in a straw-filled manger surrounded by wise men who had schlepped so far to see him. I didn't know what a virgin birth was, but the idea of a miracle . . . For me, a little girl who would grow up to be a writer, the story of a baby born in a barn because no one would welcome his parents made for a compelling narrative.
My grandparents spoke Yiddish and kept kosher. My parents identified as Jewish, but they were, like many New Yorkers, cultural Jews, not practicing a religion. Our Jewishness was defined around food, language and humor. "Christmas is not for us," I was told.
Hanukkah, a minor Jewish holiday, was barely celebrated in my family. We went to my grandparents' apartment where my brother and I were presented with foil-covered chocolate Hanukkah gelt, which we unwrapped and devoured on the spot. There were no other gifts. As our family was leaving to go home, my grandmother would go to her pocketbook, slowly take out her coin purse and ceremoniously give us each a $20 bill. "For Kolletch," she said with her heavily inflected accent. I held the bill in my hand for only seconds before it was confiscated by my father, who said it would be put in the bank. Not until I was a teenager did I understand that "kolletch" meant the place I would go after high school.
In the early '60s, my family moved from the Bronx to Plainview, land of ethnic Jews and Italians and generic Americans. Everyone was white, but more "mixed" than my neighborhood in the Bronx. My mother sold real estate, and December was a busy time. Jewish couples drove around looking for a block with no Christmas lights: a "Jewish area." The schools still had Christmas concerts, but there was the recognition that the holiday was not celebrated by everyone.
Flash forward some decades to the Midwestern college town where I raised my family, my oldest daughter coming home from kindergarten and announcing: "Mom, I am the only Hanukkah child in my whole class!" She wasn't exactly sure what that meant, but saw it as something positive. I was asked to go to school to explain to the class "the real meaning of Hanukkah" -- something my own parents had apparently neglected to teach me. I had some research to do.
Today everyone starts the "holiday season" before the turkey carcass is stripped down. Lights, action, mall music, catalogs, online promotions. I'm relieved to have a free pass not to participate. "Jewish," I let it be known to anyone who wants to commiserate with me about the pressure of getting ready for Christmas. "Not my holiday," I explain.
Amid the commercial excess, there's also a kind of neutralization. There are "holiday trees." School Christmas concerts replace "Silent Night" with "Frosty the Snowman." Or the insipid "Jingle Bell Rock."
Christians may lament the secularization of Christmas, but strangely, I do as well. The Christmas season of my childhood was a time of poignancy and wonder -- even for a little Jewish girl whose parents were freethinkers and whose grandparents only gave her expectations.