The last time my father visited, I learned what seemed a remarkable thing: all three of his best friends in high school were Jewish. He grew up in Poughkeepsie, an hour from New York City by train. But I grew up four hours north of Poughkeepsie, and what a difference a few hours' drive can make. I remember only one kid from my high school whom everybody knew as Jewish: his name was Ben, he played tennis and the violin, and he put up with an awful lot of abuse from his circle of friends. He'd make a joke, and one of them would say something like, "Shut up, Jew." I don't think his friends actually cared about his being Jewish -- it was just an easy, stupid shot. For a long time, I couldn't understand how he took it the way he did. Finally, I decided that it must be that these were his friends -- where else was he going to go? So he learned to swallow it. It probably helped that they weren't really serious. As for me, I was friends with a half-Jew in elementary school, but his mother was Catholic, so you can bet he celebrated Christmas like the rest of us.
It's interesting that the place you decided to start was with the Jews, your father's friends, your own friend. Christmas has to start with the Jews, I guess, no matter where you start. It was Jews who were killed by Herod and Jews who were chased into Egypt by him, pregnant with the future, and Jews whose testimony later became the Christmas story. But though in my childhood I would sometimes help neighbors decorate their Christmas trees with tinsel -- we would never have had one and never felt deprived: "That's what they do, not what we do" -- in later years much of the holiday involved explaining over and over that Hanukkah had nothing to do with Christmas; it was just an accident that it came at the same time of year, and it was not the most important Jewish holiday by a long shot. I didn't know at the time that the Christmas celebrations we all know were more or less the invention of 18th-century Germany and 19th-century England (and Charles Dickens), while Hanukkah had been celebrated more or less the same way for over a thousand years. When I was a child, Christmas was the world, Hanukkah only at home.
The name-calling you described was painful to hear, but your adult understanding of Ben's having no choice was touching. For a good bit of my childhood I was like Ben. We lived in Reseda, in the San Fernando Valley of L.A., when the tracts were just being built. Almost all my neighbors were non-Jews except during one short period. Christmas was everywhere; Hanukkah, Passover, Rosh Hashanah we found privately at the synagogue or at my grandparents' or my great aunt and uncle's in L.A. The exceptional period occurred in the year or two during which my next-door neighbors were my friend Mark and his family. I call him my friend because we had both the neighborhood and being Jewish in common. We went horseback riding in Griffith Park on our birthdays (I still have a picture, him on a horse several hands taller than mine), and we would do what today kids call "just hanging out." He was twice as big as I was and once socked a kid in the mouth on the playground who was making some nasty comment about the Jews. To me he was a hero, like the Maccabees of the Hanukkah story. But he moved away, and there I was again, alone among the gentiles.
Jews on horseback? That doesn't fit with what I learned from Roth's Portnoy, marveling at a goy who "played polo (yes, games from on top of a horse!) on Sunday afternoons...." It's a complicated world.
We learned Hanukkah songs in elementary school about spinning the dreidel and dancing the hora, but I had no idea what any of it meant. I didn't know why you spun dreidels and danced horas. I didn't know why you lit candles on the menorah. I didn't know why you got one present a night for eight nights. It wasn't like Passover -- that, I understood from hearing the readings of the Old Testament in church. And I had attended a seder with my parents during our brief sojourn in Boston -- my dad worked with Lawrence Kohlberg, a noted developmental psychologist. But Hanukkah just seemed like a pitiful Christmas wannabe: "See, we have decorations!" Yeah, but what's a menorah compared to the complete transformation of a house that Christmas not merely makes possible, but invites -- even demands? "See, we have presents!" One present a night for eight nights? Sad, really. Check out the orgy of delight a Christian gets on Christmas morning, when half the joy is the sheer scope of it: so many presents for so many people, and all at once. "See, we have traditions!" Hello? Christmas carols? Stockings? Specials on television? Christmas trees? We even had a literature of Christmas: "The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus." "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas. A Christmas Carol. "A Child's Christmas in Wales." "The Gift of the Magi." And on and on. It wasn't that I gloated over Christmas's rout of Hanukkah. It's that I really didn't give it much thought beyond "It's not the real deal."Gideon:
There's no doubt that Christmas beat Hanukkah in amount of public activity surrounding it and the quantity and size of presents. On the other hand, Hanukkah lasted longer. We got chocolate coins and other little gifts every night for eight days, and we got to eat potato pancakes, fried in oil, with salt, which I loved far more than anything in the fruitcake or candy cane line. This didn't make me feel superior or luckier; neither did I feel deprived. Christians love sweets; Jews love salt -- as it seemed to me then. That's just the way it was.Matthew: Wait a second -- Jews love salt, while Christians love sweets? That doesn't exactly square with what I remember from Jackie Mason: "After the show, the gentiles will say to each other, 'Let's get a drink.' The Jews will say, 'You want to go for a piece of cake?' " And the pastry counter at D.Z. Akin's is nothing short of breathtaking (or maybe heart-stopping). For me, eating at Christmas was less about candy and more about Christmas dinner, which often meant beef tenderloin with béarnaise sauce, which I'm just now realizing isn't kosher, mixing dairy and meat the way it does. But it's funny you mention potato pancakes. I was in Extraordinary Desserts up in Hillcrest, picking up some strudel and chocolate brioche, and I spied this little book from children's author Lemony Snicket: