Every once in a while, I meet someone from the Midwest or rural Pennsylvania who is shocked to discover that I don't celebrate Christmas. "Well, I understand you're Jewish," they'll say, "but you still must have a Christmas tree, right?"
"But what did you tell your kids about Santa Claus? Aren't they upset that he doesn't come to their house?" Well, in a city where Elmo, Spider-Man and Dora are regularly seen clogging sidewalks and posing for tourist photos, it's actually pretty easy to explain what a fictional character in a furry suit is (and why it would be really freakin' weird if one of them came to our house). We did tell them, though, that some of their friends believed Santa was real and it would be totally uncool to ruin it for them. They were happy to oblige, and felt rather special and sophisticated being in on the adults' secret.
I enjoy the Yuletide season, I really do. I appreciate the festive decorations and big sales at all the departments stores, I look forward to the morning my doorman buzzes up to tell me my friend Elise has dropped off her fabulous homemade cookies. And, OK, I'll admit it: I love listening to our local news team sing "Silver Bells" on that ubiquitous commercial. But I just can't seem to work up any feelings of being left out.
Because where I grew up, in a mostly Jewish neighborhood on Long Island, not celebrating Christmas was the rule of the day, and we had our very own not-Christmas rituals. While kids all over the country were waking at the crack of dawn to tear open presents, we got to sleep blissfully late—a real treat in my over-packed schedule of tap-dance, gymnastics and piano lessons.
After a leisurely breakfast, we would play with our Chanukah presents, usually torn open a week or two earlier. I can distinctly remember each year of Chanukah by the obsessed-over toy I opened on the first night: A board game called The Winning Ticket one year, the flashing lights of Simon on another and, most memorably, Derry Daring, a female action figure who rode a little motorcycle up a tiny ramp (this was during the Evel Knievel craze). I sent Derry flying up that ramp and over my stuffed animals for hours on Christmas morning 1975 (sadly, a couple of weeks later, my friend's dog chewed off Derry's hand, and she never rode that cycle again). We would always turn on WPIX's Yule Log for a few minutes, just for a laugh. And then we would pile into the station wagon to see the Christmas Day movie.
This was a BIG deal. The theaters on Long Island would be packed on Christmas Day. We would run into neighbors and friends from school, all settling into their creaky seats in bulky ski jackets, sneakers sticking to the Pepsi-stained floors. Some of the movies turned out to be classics ("Tootsie," "Reds"), some turned out to be "First Family." (What? You don't remember that 1980 turkey with Gilda Radner and Bob Newhart?)
We would then gather outside the theater with the Friedmans and Weissbergs and other unrelated Cohens and make plans to meet up at Szechuan Garden or Hunan Dynasty. In fact, this epic holiday tradition was immortalized in Justice Elena Kagan's 2010 confirmation hearings, when Lindsay Graham asked her where she was on a previous Christmas day, the Most Awesome Justice ever responded: "You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant."
It's not that my town's general lack of colorful lights and Xmas merriness never came up. There were a handful of non-Jews on my school bus, and every year the same argument would pop up:
"Aw, you don't celebrate Christmas? Too bad for you!"
"Oh yeah, we get Chanukah—eight nights of presents instead of just one. Suck it!"
"Eight nights of chocolate coins and spinning tops—so lame! We get like a gazillion toys all in one morning!"
Like the other major religious argument on the bus—"The Yankees may win more games, but the Mets have more heart"—this one is destined to be repeated every year for all eternity, with no decisive winner ever called.
Maybe I've blocked it, but I honestly can't remember any time when I wished my family celebrated Christmas instead of celebrating the magic of Hollywood on December 25. It's as if I visited India during Diwali or Japan during the Cherry Blossom festivals: It's a lovely celebration that I can appreciate from the outside looking in, but it has no deeper personal resonance for me. When I light the menorah with my kids, though, I zoom right back to my childhood kitchen, that same little blue box of candles (at least three were always broken), the same prayers practiced in Hebrew school, the same smell of frying latkes with applesauce. It's as good a holiday memory as you can get.