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Oy to the World

As a Jewish kid, all I wanted for Christmas was—Christmas

Looking inside a window from outside showing a Christmas tree, stockings, and a menorrah.
Paul Spella/Getty Images

As a kid, I had no yule logs, carols or trees. My halls were always undecked.

When I asked my mom why we didn’t put up colored lights and have a Hanukkah bush, she replied, "Because we don’t, that’s why.”

I recognized the reason as the same one for why we didn’t own a boat. (Another Jewish family I knew, the Grossmanns, had colored lights and a Hanukkah bush. But they also had a boat, so it made sense.)

The social pressure to conform was intense and confusing. If I didn’t hang stockings, I didn’t believe in goodwill. If our house didn’t blink, we didn’t want peace on earth. Only Grinches and Scrooges disagreed.

All my Christian friends rubbed it in just by getting that one big gift from their parents. I remember Steve Gerraputa demonstrating all 10 speeds of his gift after pedaling it to my house.

"Well, you get Christmas eight nights in a row," Steve said.

Steve’s theory of Hanukkah was faulty. It didn’t account for all the dividing by eight. This resulted in a useless pile of $10.99 model dinosaurs, Planet of the Apes dolls and slot cars, none of which I could ride to school and impress the ladies with.

Eventually, I discovered the only good thing about always being so free and bored on Christmas—getting to celebrate it at anyone else’s house I wanted.

"So, did you have a happy Hanukkah?" a friend’s relative would usually ask across the glazed ham, following the theory that singling strangers out in the name of inclusiveness makes them feel more included.

"Oh, we have lots of Jewish friends," the relative continued, accompanied by cautious eye contact and some mention of how they love their morning bagels.

I finally got to celebrate my own Christmas in college, the night before freshman winter break. My roommates and I couldn’t afford a tree because the money our parents gave us for food had already been spent on beer.

So, in the spirit of the season, we went tree hunting at midnight in the woods surrounding our dorm at the State University of New York at Albany. The campus police drove by just as we dragged a freshly cut Tannenbaum under the revealing glow of a streetlamp.

Why we weren’t busted, I can’t say. Maybe the cops felt extra Christmasy that night.

Once we got the tree into our room, I helped arrange the tinsel and ornaments and stood back to take it all in. I still didn't feel like I belonged. Christmas was never going to be my jam.

Now that my (not Jewish) wife and I have a family of our own, we do celebrate Christmas, but with mixed success on my end.

When she was 3, my daughter asked how we could have seen two Santas—one at the mall and, a short while later, a different one at her friend’s house. Instead of busting out the “Santa’s helpers” BS, I cracked and told her the truth.

After all those childhood years of wishing I could celebrate too, I had pulled the Christmas magic rug right from under my daughter’s feet. It wasn’t my proudest moment. 

But instead of reacting like her world had been rocked, my daughter treated it like a secret that I’d shared with her, something that we had to protect.

That night, my wife whipped out her “Santa Tracker” iPhone app, which purported to follow St. Nick’s visits down and up billions of chimneys in a single night.

Our daughter watched my face cautiously.

“Shhh,” she whispered to me. “Mom still believes.”