While growing up, Christmastime was always very confusing to me. My family kind of mish mashed the holiday season into an odd merry stew of mixed messages. Being one of the only Jewish families in a very Christian German/Italian part of Queens New York, we obviously celebrated things differently than our neighbors but I assume that was just because Mom wanted us to follow our religion yet did not want us to feel bad about missing out on all the holiday fun the other kids were having.
True, my house had no decorated tree or twinkly colored lights and certainly no birth ‘o’ baby Jesus figurines but no matter what date Hanukah fell on, Santa still oddly enough visited this chimney-less Jewish kid. Yeah, it did not make sense to me either but you didn’t ask probing questions if you’re getting toys.
Mom would schlep me over to the local miserably over-crowded Mays or Alexanders department store to wait in the long line for a millisecond visit with the store’s low-rent Brooklynese-accented crusty Kris Kringle. I don’t recall the exact details but I can almost imagine him saying with a tinge of Kesslers on his breath “ Ho friggin ho, I gots a million udder kidz to get to so hurry up and tell me whats yous wants fur Christssmesses?” Then confusingly enough, on the night of the 24th after I went to sleep wrapped presents, vaguely reminiscent of the toys I asked for, magically appeared on our unholiday-decorated living room floor.
Like every other child in the pre- computer entertainment on-demand era, I also watched all the kitschy kiddie Christmas TV specials featuring Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie In The Box, preachy Linus and that creepy winter dude that put one foot in front of the other. We even had a Christmas Day celebration… well, kinda.
Although a watchmaker by trade my Dad also ran a jewelry store with my Grandfather, so he worked a zillion hours during the busy holiday season with his only real time off on Christmas Day. My Grandma on my Mother’s side’s birthday was also December 25th; so by default, along with my Aunt and Uncle’s family, that was the day we had our annual family holiday mass gift exchange, festive feast, Hanukah-ish, ‘Birthday Party’ brouhaha wing-ding celebration. Although my tired Dad usually napped though significant parts of it.
We never called it Christmas but aside from the lack of a tree and the repetitive carols, it had all the same earmarks of any other family’s traditional Christmas celebration… well except that our excuse for the gathering, gifts and gratifying grub was someone else’s birthday besides Jesus.
In one of my Mother’s few external statements of both religious pride and victorious one-upmanship, during Hanukah Mom always prominently displayed our cheesy off-white electric menorah in the front living room window as if to almost taunt the grumpy German family across the street who were still holding a bit of a grudge for coming out on the wrong side of World War II a mere 20 or so years earlier. Aside from our not too religious eight-night ceremony of screwing in the menorah’s appropriate light bulbs at sundown, the birthday party and Mom putting out some waxy tasting chocolate coin ‘gelt’ mixed with some multi colored wrapped marble sized candies in the living room candy dish, we did not do anything else out of the ordinary during the holiday season. Still it always felt like a special time of the year.
Traditions started to crumble as my four much older siblings began leaving home to start their own lives and families in different parts of the country. Even my folks and I eventually left the old family house and moved south to a little condo in Miami Florida. Not long after we relocated, my Grandmother passed away and with her so also died our excuse for a family-wide Christmas Day gathering.
Because everyone else was an adult already when our world started changing, my family tends to forget that I was still a kid so my memories and perspective of the holiday are very different than theirs. They were grown up and sleeping through my Christmas morning Santa gift unwrapping party. I was only 12 years old when we had our last real family Christmas-ish ‘Birthday’ celebration.
Being so far away from the rest of my family, my Christmas/Hanukahs in High School were pretty unmemorable, and in college they were spent with my girlfriend’s family. During the 15 years I traveled on the road for work, I was isolated every holiday season and spent most of my Christmas Days alone except for the rare occasional year I happened to be close enough to share the day with friends or a sibling’s family. Even after I stopped traveling, during most of my 14 years (and counting) of marriage I still tended to be on my own while my wife headed up to Iowa to celebrate Christmas with her family. Truth is, although no one tends to believe me, I’m not just used to it but I have really grown to like my quiet meditative Christmas Day alone. Of course that wouldn’t be an option if I had kids of my own.
This year has felt different though, I’m not sure what to make of it or where my head is at. Of course Grandma has been gone for decades and my Uncle passed a few years back too but last year my brother died in December. The first one of ‘us’, in my nuclear family to go. The 1st anniversary of his death kinda created a sad head-trip backdrop to the month’s normal fa-la-la la-la lallyness. Without children to force me to focus on the holidays of today, my head has always looked to the past for comfort during this season but it’s almost like Neil’s death has moved me farther away and even more removed from those long ago Christmas Day Grandma’s Birthday parties of yore.
I have video tape of a small partial family holiday gathering at Neil’s house from the 1980’s when I happened to be working near him in Connecticut. On the tape, we all look younger than the image that pops in my head when I think of us now. Less worn by the world and age. So much of our lives were still before us back then, so many now well-worn roads that had yet to have been traveled, so many real-world pressures yet experienced, so many decisions both good and bad that had yet to have been made… I was thinking about watching that tape when I am alone this Christmas Day but I am not sure I am up to it yet. The past can be a messy place to spend too much time in if you’re not ready.
I guess Christmas is still a confusing mish mashed merry holiday stew of mixed messages to me. My wife and I decorate the house and send out cards. A menorah and a tree coexist on the years we don’t think the cats will play lumberjack with them. I still watch a Charlie Brown Christmas and hang a stocking. I give my wife a Christmas present and each of the 8 nights of Hanukah she gives me a little gift and a different craft beer presented in our goofy Hanukah Beer Monkey.
But I think for now I need to just crawl outside of my head and enjoy the holiday spirit in the air and not worry about the details. Face it, no matter how you might celebrate, the whole blurry messy point of the season is love. So let me take this moment to tell all of you that have hung in there and have read this far, I do most certainly love you and wish you only the best of merry warm holiday cheer that lasts long into the new year.
If you have not had enough of me yet, please please please feel free to read my favorite blog entry from back in 2011 HOLIDAY BLOG