The Day a Jewish Girl Discovered Christmas
When I was a little girl growing up in Brooklyn my family celebrated Chanukah and so did all of my Jewish friends. In the fifties celebrating Chanukah meant lighting the candles each night on the menorah, eating latkes my mother had made and spinning the dreidel I got on the first night for a present. Along with the dreidel I might have gotten chocolate gelt (coins) wrapped in gold paper or new mittens in one big package. So each night there was no inviting tree, no presents in brightly colored paper and bows and no Christmas cookies. There were only the brightly colored candles filling the menorah and the spinning dreidel.
I used to long for Christmas things. I wanted to have my place decorated and a big tree in the middle with colored lights and tinsel and presents underneath in patterned shiny paper with big bows. Don’t get me wrong. I liked Chanukah. What child wouldn’t love being given a present each night? I liked watching the lighted candles and I liked the story behind it of Judah Maccabee and how he and his sons saved the temple when the Romans destroyed and desecrated it. In Sunday school I learned how the Maccabees cleaned up the temple and found oil to keep the eternal lamp burning. But they thought it would only burn for one day. Instead it burned for eight days. This was such a miracle it was decided to have a holiday to celebrate The Festival of Lights or Chanukah. But I wanted the thrill of seeing that lighted Christmas tree.
My friend, Geraldine Potenza, whose father was our superintendent, told me about her Christmas tree so much that my mouth was drooling from needing to see it. So she invited me to her apartment and when we opened the door it was instant Christmas. As we walked into the place the first thing you saw was this beautiful, lighted and decorated fresh evergreen that filled the small living room with a pine odor as if I were in a pine forest. The tree was magical with bubbling lights and small colored ones. Everyone’s presents were under the tree and Christmas music was playing. Until I went to Disneyland later in my life I never had such an experience. And for a few minutes as I sat in that pine scented room I understood what Christmas was all about for my friends.
That night when we lit the candles I celebrated the miracle of Chanukah and decided that though I didn’t believe in the why of Christmas I did love the joy of it. When I got married my husband and I decided to get a tree and celebrate Christmas since though he was Jewish too, his family had a tree every year. So we decorated it and we exchanged presents as well as celebrating Chanukah. But when I saw the tree actually decorated and in my home it wasn’t the same. We never had a Christmas tree again, though when we had children, we did celebrate Christmas with stockings and a big present. My daughters and I would put out the milk and cookies for Santa and I’d read The Night Before Christmas to my youngest daughter. Then in the morning they would wake to stuffed stockings and the present they had asked Santa for underneath the stockings. Of course, the milk and cookies were gone.:)