I miss Christmas. Each year I’ve missed Christmas a little but this year I miss it a lot. I converted to Judaism over 32 years ago after being a lapsed Catholic for at least a decade and the only thing I regretted about my decision was giving up Christmas. My husband, an ultra-Reform Jew, was fine with us continuing to have a Christmas tree and making dozens of Christmas cookies. But, I am an “all-or-nothing” personality so I decided if I was Jewish, he was Jewish, and our newborn daughter was Jewish, we would forego Christmas at our house. It was no great hardship because we spent Christmas at my parents’ house and my parents, like Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of “A Christmas Carol,” knew how to keep Christmas.
No artificial trees there. My father every year bought a real tree, the very best tree he could find as long as it was the cheapest tree on the lot. Some of our trees made Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree look like the tree at Rockefeller Center. It was always a Scotch pine because my dad liked the scent and my mom liked the big needles. Our tree was covered with lights, ornaments and tinsel. Not garlands, but individual strands of “icicle” tinsel, applied one by one by me or tossed haphazardly by my mom and sister. On the round table in front of the living room’s picture window sat the family Nativity set. It was a collection of pieces from various sets that had been used over the years. As a result, there were extra sheperds, Five Kings and half a dozen baby Jesus figurines to choose from. Depending on who set up the Nativity, every one of them might have made an appearance.
Christmas cards were taped, at a diagonal, along the arches that separated the living room from the middle room and the middle room from the kitchen. In front of the picture window in the middle room, was a small china chest. On top resided the ceramic Christmas tree made by someone at Home Bureau or Ceramics Class, with the tiny lights that were powered by the white electric cord that hung from the back. Sometimes the tree sat on a doily, sometimes it nestled amidst a sheet of fluffy fake snow with glitter. The large shallow oval basket that was the home of the family Easter candy display was brought into service at Christmas as the kitchen table centerpiece. Filled with boughs left over from the Christmas tree, pine cones of indeterminate age that had been sprayed with white paint and sprinkled with glitter at some long-forgotten crafts class were tucked into the boughs. In the center was a large glass cylinder, painted gold and covered with gold sequins inside which was the remnant of a white pillar candle that was lit for a few hours every Christmas Eve. The candle was probably a decade old, since it burned only about a quarter inch or so every year.
The kitchen counters were covered with pies. My mom was the best pie baker in the world and she made dozens of pies at Christmas for gifts and for family consumption. Everyone’s favorite pie would be available: my dad’s apple two crust pie, the apricot pie favored by my sister, my baby brother’s apple crumb pie, pecan pie for Uncle Frank, cherry pie for Mom and two pies for me – mincemeat and raspberry. Mom would always give me two small slices, warmed up, with vanilla ice cream on the top late on Christmas Eve after everyone else had gone to bed. It was our ritual to eat pie and drink tea while we watched “The Bells of St. Mary’s” as I put out gifts from Santa for my children.
Christmas Eve was our big celebration, started when we were small and my grandparents were still alive. They would arrive with Uncle Frank and a cardboard refrigerator box from my Dad’s store full of gifts for all. We exchanged family gifts then so our grandparents would not have to be up early on Christmas Day to see us open our presents. Christmas Day was strictly for presents from Santa. We kept that tradition long after my grandparents passed away.
Christmas Eve dinner was ham, scalloped potatoes, Jello mold with cranberries and sour cream, frozen salad and my macaroni and cheese. I was the Christmas Eve Jew. With the advent of anticipated Mass at 5:30 pm on Christmas Eve, my mother abandoned her attendance at High Mass on Christmas morning. With all the Catholics in the family, and sometimes my children, going to Mass in the midst of dinner preparation, the task fell to me and my husband, while he was alive. He carved the ham while I set up the buffet and put out the cut glass bowls my mother used only on Christmas and Easter. By the time the family returned from church, dinner was ready. My mother once remarked that it was a good thing my conversion had coincided with the creation of the Christmas Eve Mass or we would not have been able to eat until 8:00 PM.
Uncle Frank was my mother’s brother. He was blind and lived in their family home, around the corner and down the block on Main Street. He was a welcome fixture at every family celebration, except Christmas Eve. Presents could not be opened until dinner was over and dinner was not over until dessert had been served and consumed. And Uncle Frank loved dessert. He might have my mother repeat the available selections for me two or three times. He would waffle about his choices, finally selecting a piece of apple, a piece of mince and a little slice of pecan, with whipped cream. He savored every bite as one or another of the grandchildren slipped into the kitchen from the living room, surveyed his plate and scurried back to the others, announcing in an exasperated whisper “He still has the pecan pie to go and he just asked if there was cherry pie!”
In the living room, the children were kneeling before the tree, nudging packages, examining gift tags, surreptitiously shaking a package (there was a strict ban against this) and looking in the tree branches for the dreaded white envelope from my mother. Every year, my mother misplaced at least one present. The recipient would find a note on the tree: “Dear —, I got you a wonderful present but I can’t remember where I hid it. I am sure that once the holiday is over, I will find it. Merry Christmas! Love, Nan and Pop.” The gift was usually found before Easter; once or twice, it did not make its appearance until the following Christmas. Some years there were three or four envelopes, one year two were addressed to me! But one envelope contained my subscription to Adirondack Life magazine, so I didn’t mind too much.
Presents were handed out by one of the adult children until the grandchildren were old enough to take over that task. Each gift was to be opened before another was distributed – that usually lasted for about three gifts, then there was a free-for-all. Paper and bows flew as some ripped through every gift barely pausing to examine one before moving to the next. Some of us let our pile grow and then opened each one carefully, after all the excitement had died down.
Christmas Day was for rising early to see what Santa had brought. As a child, I rarely slept on Christmas Eve, waiting for the first glimmer of light to peak through my bedroom window. We were not allowed downstairs until the sun was up, usually around 7:30 AM. Often, I would sneak downstairs in the middle of night, feeling my way around the piles of gifts (Santa did not wrap the gifts he delivered to our house) to discover Betsy Wetsy or the new Barbie or figure skates.
As an adult, I was up even earlier to savor the quiet of the morning, to turn the tree lights back on and to make a strong cup of tea before the children came tumbling down the stairs. My morning would then be occupied with building whatever Lego structure my son had received and pairing the right shoes with the right ensemble for Barbie or Glamor Girls or the punk rock dolls that replaced them.
Christmas dinner at mid-day was always roast beef and browned potatoes. Christmas was a slow day with ample time to enjoy the festive meal and decorations in the house, grab a short walk around the block or a quick slide down the sledding hill at the end of the street and a blissful nap.
Dad died in 1995 and Mom passed away in 2006. It has been a long time since I celebrated Christmas. Usually Hanukkah coincides with the holiday so I can festoon my house with my own decorations, make my own holiday treats and fill the void. But this year, Hanukkah preceded Thanksgiving by a day and was over before many people had even begun to shop or decorate for Christmas. And this year, certain complications with my health have precluded me from my usual frenzy of holiday shopping, baking and partying.
My daughter will be home for Christmas. We will take in a movie and eat Chinese food as we have done for the last six years. But, I will be missing mince pie, Bing Crosby and my mom, a little more this year than before.