Stacey, green with Christmas envy
“Gather around my friends, you are in a sacred place, you are among those you can trust, and your secrets are safe here. No one will judge you. No one will point fingers. And no one will tell your grandparents.”
This is always how I imagine that a support group for Jews with Christmas Envy might start, in a library conference room or a community center basement, with large pots of bitter coffee and platters of slightly stale and lopsided gingerbread men.
Judaism is built on a foundation of questioning, even challenging, the doctrines of our faith. Think of the wonderful debates that rage over the Talmud, as vociferous and passionate now as hundreds of years ago. You can pick your topic of choice, go to the books and find some support, and launch your attack on any aspect of this rich history.
As long as you don’t bring up the C-word. No…the OTHER C-word.
Of all the things we keep hidden from each other as a group—the secret bacon-cheeseburgers scarffed down on the way to Shabbat dinner at the Kosher home of your in-laws, checking e-mail on the Blackberry in the bathroom during High Holy Day services, faking deep religiosity at work with a Gentile boss for a free two-day Rosh Hashanah pass that gets used for a long weekend in Vegas…you know who you are—but nothing holds us in quiet desperation year after year like Christmas Envy.
Some of my favorite holiday tales are rooted in this hush-hush pathology. The Jewish family friend whose four-year-old son insists on waiting in line to sit on Santa’s lap, where he confesses that he doesn’t need Santa to bring him any presents, but he sure would like some decorations. And, the girlfriend who, the December after marrying her Gentile husband, called to gloat that she was decorating her first Christmas tree. When I asked if the two of them were having fun, she shrieked almost maniacally. “I sent him out with his friends for the day! This tree is all mine! When we have kids it can be a family thing, but I’ve waited my whole life for this tree and I’M DOING IT ALL BY MYSELF! I designed it, I bought all the decorations, and it is going to be F***ING PERFECT! Are you JEALOUS?”
Yes. Yes I was.
As a kid I didn’t suffer so much. Chanukah was a festival of presents, I always thought eight days were so much cooler than one, and I liked that no matter where in the world we might have traveled for the winter break, we usually managed to find a movie theater and a Chinese restaurant for the traditional Jewish December 25th ritual. My cousin Sue Sussman wrote a great children’s book called
There’s No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein
, a sort of Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret for the grammar school Christmas Envy set. It’s a warm, funny read that helped put things in perspective. I loved all the ABC twirling-rainbow-colored SPECIALS, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, crackling Heat Miser and the fluffy Abominable Snowman, and I thought it was hysterical that Herbie wanted to be a dentist instead of an elf. Scrooged with Bill Murray still makes me laugh hard enough to shoot diet coke through my nose.
But as I got older, the holiday got tougher.
I moved, after college, into the Logan Square neighborhood, where I reside still. Four blocks from the notorious Christmas House. A house that goes so over-the-top on decorations that it blocks up traffic on the Boulevard for a month, and the license plates of gawkers range from Wisconsin to Indiana to Michigan-- once I even saw Florida. Animatronic figurines spin in lit plexiglass boxes on the lawn, Santa and the Reindeers on the roof, flags of a hundred nations, every surface shining with lights that I think you can probably see from space. I can certainly see the incandescent structure from my front window.
The front window in the circular turret part of my Victorian living room that freaking cries out for a huge nine-foot blue spruce with tiny white twinkle lights and glittering ornaments and some shiksa angel in tulle on the top and…
Sorry. I digress.
Now, I can be a Christmas cynic as much as the next person. I frankly detest the imposition of holiday music that is foisted upon me in every public location between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Four years of Christmas concerts in my high school band, including having to make the horse neigh at the end of Sleigh Ride through my trumpet, pretty much cured me of Christmas music, despite the fact that most of the best songs are both written and performed by members of the Tribe. (Exception made for Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, which I love beyond all reason.) But this goes mostly for pre-recorded Christmas music in retail locations. I love the sound of red-cheeked strangers singing on my doorstep on a winter’s night, and the gathered-round-the-piano songs at holiday parties. I hate the commercialism that is attached to the holiday, buying and buying, all about the presents, and the commercials that start right after Halloween and seem anathema to the true spirit of giving.
But sweet fancy Moses, I do love the food.
My friend Doug has a killer holiday party every year, and while the Turkey Tonnato is delish, the meatballs succulent, and the spicy sesame noodles haunt my dreams…you’ll invariably find me parked next to the enormous brown sugar ham, engaged in semi-conscious conversation while surreptitiously sneaking bits into my mouth for two or three hours. If it weren’t so unladylike, I’d probably pilfer the bone into my purse at the end of the night to gnaw on the way home.
Platters of Christmas cookies, sparkling with sanding sugar, decorated with royal icing, like gorgeous edible jewels. Gingerbread houses, elaborate with candy decor, heady with spice. I can’t really get behind egg nog, truth be told, but mulled wine or spiced cider or Christmas punch, yes please! Plus the actual Christmas meal, effectively a redux Thanksgiving, well, if you don’t know how I would feel about that, please check
Oh So Very Thankful
for a full report.
I don’t know what a figgy pudding is, but I’d like to try one. With a side of wassail. Preferably after I’ve spent an afternoon watching A Christmas Story while stringing popcorn. I’ve never tasted a roasted goose, but considering what goose fat can do to a simple French fry, I’m very willing to give it a shot. I’m not interested in fruitcake, but then again, neither are most of my Gentile friends. Mincemeat pie intrigues me, especially since no one makes it with suet anymore, as does the concept of plum pudding with hard sauce. Buche de Noel cakes, roasted chestnuts, candy canes, oranges studded with cloves (although I don’t think you’re supposed to eat these), ham, ham and more ham!
It isn’t ALL about the food…although that is a powerful draw. It is also about the idea of the spirit of Christmas. The Gift of the Magi. The child who puts his allowance money into the Salvation Army bucket. It’s a Wonderful Life. I’ve felt the internal glow when a colleague you don’t know well drops a card or a cookie on your desk. When I was working as a teacher, I went to the home of a student for a traditional Puerto Rican Christmas Eve, which moved me deeply, dozens of family members taking turns at the dinner table, with kids decorating the tree and playing with new toys, not to mention the best arroz con pollo and rice and beans I’ve ever tasted. I’ve watched my goddaughter open her presents and nearly pass out with joy, giving hugs and kisses of true gratitude to the gathered crowd. I’ve stood in an Ecuadorian church and heard a choir singing Simon and Garfunkel in Spanish. I’ve been amongst the hoards on the plaza at the Vatican on Christmas morning and heard Pope John Paul say, among other things, Shalom. I’ve had a traditional New Zealand Christmas Barbecue (Best. Lamb chops. Ever.), seen palm trees covered in lights and stars, and not one but two Costa Rican Christmases with the most beautiful and gracious and kibitzing nation of people you could hope to meet. I was twenty-nine before I saw the transcendent Goodman Theatre production of A Christmas Carol for the first time, but I haven’t missed a production since, and every year it delights me and makes me cry and makes me smile and makes me REALLY GREEN WITH ENVY.
Not in a wanting-to-convert kind of way…I adore being Jewish. It isn’t a self-loathing thing, I think our holidays and traditions generally are really cool and meaningful. And I do not in any way mean to imply that somehow Jews are without a tradition of giving or generosity of spirit, in fact, I think we as a people excel in these very arenas year-round as part and parcel of who we are and how we live in the world. Just in a wistful boy-it-would-be-fun sort of way, to decorate and bake and go caroling and hang a stocking with neither a sense of irony nor guilt, nor outsider status, and nary an ancestor spinning in a grave.
I have always known that these things will never happen for me unless my next romantic partner is a Gentile, in which case I hope he will teach me Christmas, (and that I will let him help decorate the tree!) and that I will be able to bring him into our traditions as well.
In the meantime, while it doesn’t have quite the dramatic oomph of a tree, I do love the way the flickering lights of my menorah bounce off the windows in the circular turret part of my Victorian living room, even if I can’t fling tinsel on it. And I love that my friends who aren’t Jewish include me in the celebrations of their holiday. Even if I do eat most of the ham.
At this time of the year, with Christmas all around us, and Chanukah looming, and the New Year right behind, I wish you all meaningful celebrations with the traditions of your choice.
And if you decide there IS such a thing as a Chanukah bush, I won’t tell your grandparents. As long as you invite me to help decorate.
Merry Everything, and Happy Always.
See you in 2009.
Yours in good taste,
NOSH of the week: The season of holiday giving is upon us, and for foodies, no gift is better than gourmet goodies. Check out the delectables at the new website www.foodsacrossamerica.com Really yummy stuff. I can attest to quality because I wrote the copy for the website and, to do a bang up job, had to taste most of the offerings! So if you bop around and read the history of the different brands and serving suggestions, it is hopefully entertaining. Just don’t tell me if there is a typo.
NOSH food read of the week:
Tender at the Bone
by Ruth Reichl