When I was young, about 11, Jewish kids didn’t acknowledge Christmas as anything other than just another day, but we appreciated that it meant something important to our Christian neighbors. The reality was, since our neighbors were Christian, it was a boring day for us kids as our friends were with their families enjoying a day that in American culture is one for family, and we felt excluded.
Hence, I decided to get in on the Christmas action, but in a Jewish way. So on Christmas Eve, when the Christmas tree lots were beginning to discount their trees, I bought a small one and brought it home, frightened that my parents would toss me and the tree out the door. If that happened, at least I got it wholesale.
As a city kid, I had never handled a tree before and had no idea how to transport it — after all, I was only 11 at the time — so I dragged it home and, let me tell you, that tree was heavy. As I dragged it in the front door, my mother saw it and asked, “What’s that?” My response: “a Hanukkah bush.”
She rolled her eyes, shook her head and I’m sure she said to herself that having the tree was better than explaining to me again — as she had every Christmas — why it was not a special day for us. So she allowed me to put the tree in a corner. As we all looked at it, expecting some sort of magic to happen, my father asked, “What do we do next?” Then the questions: How does it stay up? My mother worried it would dry up and burn the house down. My father’s answer for that was to find the biggest pot in the kitchen and fill it with water. Every day we all kept an eye on that water level and wondered about that tree.
That first year, it just stood there until the day after Christmas, when it was tossed. The following year it had a blue ribbon on it … somehow that made the tree more Jewish? We also learned about Christmas tree stands — excuse me, Hanukkah stands. As time went on, I came to learn that this practice, which I thought was just our family’s, was happening in other Jewish homes. So, being practical, and looking for a profit, some companies that used to make only Christmas-tree ornaments began to make Hanukah-bush ornaments.
This memory is why Christmas is special to me. It’s a holiday to share, and to make your own, no matter your beliefs. So if you find yourself sad this joyous season, find some way to make it your own and you’ll feel the spirit.