Like a lot of Jewish families, mine didn’t celebrate Christmas. That would have been perfectly fine if we were religious and fully observed Hanukkah. While my mom usually remembered to display the menorah, the eight joyous days of gift giving started out strong with maybe a Wonder Woman lunchbox or a Charlie’s Angels doll, but usually deteriorated to Kool-Aid cups or a pair of socks by the final night.
Other than the menorah, there were no other holiday decorations in our house. No stockings, gaudy lights or festive ornaments. No angelic music either. Scrooge would’ve loved us. The truth was, it wasn’t so bad because we didn’t know any better. Until my little sister Amy became friends with three Christian girls — Kirsten, Kristen and Christine — who all lived in lovely Tudor houses across the railroad tracks in Forest Hills, Queens.
It was after returning from one of their houses on a snowy day in December that my 10-year-old sister put her foot down, and called an emergency family meeting.
“Since you’re really lukewarm about Hanukkah,” she said, “I want us to have Christmas!” And it was like my parents' small hearts grew three sizes that day.
It’s still amazing to me how quickly they folded. Maybe they were scared of Amy, as she was a little dynamo. Or maybe they had secretly wanted to celebrate Christmas, too. Or maybe they just wanted to make us happy.
The very next day, my dad, giddy with delight, came home – with an aluminum tree. For those of you who remember, aluminum trees were about five years past their popularity by 1972, to say nothing of being something of a joke because of the sad little tree in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Our new tree was bright silver and as soon as Amy set eyes on it, she began to cry.
“That’s not what my friends have,” she screamed. “They have real trees that are green!” But as my father, who could be tight with a dollar, had already plunked down $11 for the faux fir, that was that.
The following year, Amy made sure to go with our dad to a Christmas tree lot and picked out a beauty for us. We decorated it with red, gold and blue metallic balls and lots of tinsel. And we merrily called ourselves the Jews of Jewville.
Amy also wanted us to string up colorful holiday lights as all of the "Christine" variants had in their homes. My dad patiently explained that no one would see them as we lived on the fourth floor in the rear of an apartment building. Amy reluctantly gave in on that one, saying, "Bah, humbug."
Because I had been through 11 previously uncelebrated Christmases, I was very thankful for our newfound holiday cheer. My parents initially got some dirty looks from neighbors and some parents of our mostly Jewish friends. But over the next few years, I began to see Christmas trees in their homes too.
Amy and I both married out of the faith, maybe subconsciously assuring us that we’d always be able to celebrate Christmas. While neither of our husbands is particularly religious, both regard Christmas as a sacrament.
At my house, we have a seven-foot-tall tree, cherished ornaments and stockings passed down through three generations depicting wintry Victorian scenes. Even our pets get stockings and my daughter gets more gifts than Amy and I ever dreamed of.
Over at Amy’s house, no one is invited on Christmas Day other than her nuclear family. I, her dearest and only sister, have to come over the following day. And I’m totally OK with that because even though we came late to the party, we do love Christmas.