Something is missing from my holiday season, and it haunts me.
I grew up celebrating Hanukkah, singing all the requisite songs, lighting the menorah all eight nights, and gorging on latkes, sometimes with applesauce and sometimes with sour cream. My childhood Hanukkah memory, however, is not a bright menorah or twirling dreidel, but a dim eight-pocketed plastic Hanukkah wall hanging which seldom bore presents that excited me.
As a Jewish parent now with my own children, each year at this time I proudly display a Hanukkiah in my window, fill my children with latkes and jelly donuts, delight in watching them tear into their gifts each Hanukkah night, and put them to sleep with visions of dreidels dancing in their heads.
I love reciting the Hanukkah blessings with my children over dripping wax. When we light the candles, I think of the simple and frail Hanukkiah I had the privilege of seeing in my grandmother’s home in Tel Aviv as a child. Her Hanukkiah was once owned by the Baal Shem Tov—the founder of Hasidic Judaism—from whom her, and my, family descends. When we light the candles I am honoring my personal heritage along with a religious and cultural tradition.
But every so often during Hanukkah I glance at the corner of my apartment and imagine a Christmas tree sitting atop a pile of presents just for me. This vision isn’t just the dream of yet another Jewish American pining for the ubiquitous Christmas celebrations from which we are excluded. It is my Ghost of Christmas Past.
When I was five years old, I was visited by an angel. I was a child of divorce, then being raised by a single mother, and the angel came in the form of a woman who became my mother’s girlfriend and who raised me with my mother. I called her my “Other Mother,” and along with love, discipline, and security in my daily life, she brought me Christmas. She was my Hanukkah miracle.
For approximately eight years of my childhood we had a Christmas tree in our home. It was a dream come true, towering over everything save the forest of bookshelves that were its backdrop, bearing ornaments and lights and presents, all forbidden fruit that I was allowed to touch and smell and open. But the tree was about custom, not religion. It was about warmth in the winter and complementing our Hanukkah nights—and, mostly about making a young boy happy.
Now each Christmas, when New York City empties and the quiet—and loneliness—of the season is upon us, I am led, as if by a spirit, on a tour of my childhood. There I am, at age 6 or 8 or 9, sliding down the bannister of our Brooklyn brownstone, rushing for a pile of presents beneath the tree. And there I am breaking into boxes containing He-Man and G.I. Joe figures and Nintendo games. And there I am proudly displaying the polaroids of myself in the aftermath, beaming, surrounded by my treasure.
There I am running around antique furniture at an Italian Christmas feast with my adopted cousins, my eyes bulging, truly larger than my stomach. And there set on a table exquisitely are the calamari, the fried shrimp, the pasta dishes I will crave eternally. And there I am ingesting everything in sight, the classic Christmas songs playing in the background entering my body as well.
And then I am 12 years old, interchangeably laughing and scowling as my Other Mother carries out a bizarre tradition for the benefit of guests who would be horrified at the sight of a Christmas tree in a Jewish home: The running of the Christmas tree. There she is hoisting it up, charging down the stairs, whisking it away temporarily to our basement, leaving a trail of shame. Maybe this is when I began looking at a spot where a Christmas tree might stand, and longing for it to return.
And then I am 13 and my Other Mother and the tree both leave my home, and I suffer my second divorce.
Christmas celebrations with my Other Mother continued outside my home and I looked forward to them each year. But, as the years passed the celebrations seemed to shrink, until finally the tradition ceases.
Like Dickens’ Scrooge, I am drawn to these images of my Christmas Past, places I too could walk blindfolded. My nostalgia for Christmas is as much about a tree, presents, inclusion, and childhood as it is for my Other Mother, a true mensch. And like Scrooge’s spirit, the tree I envision in my home seems to “fluctuate[ ] in its distinctness,” at times without an outline that “would be visible in the dense gloom” of winter nights and suddenly as “distinct and clear as ever.”
Unlike Scrooge, however, I am unable to extinguish my spirit of Christmas Past, its light “burning high and bright” somewhere within me, even as I celebrate Christmas no more.
Ariel Chesler is an attorney and writer in New York. He lives with his wife and two daughters, and one cat. He is the son of feminist author and psychologist Phyllis Chesler.