It is no secret that some American Jews covet Christmas.
But for many years, I harbored a bigger secret—one that felt shameful to someone like me, who cherishes Jewish traditions: For the first few years of my early 1960s childhood on Long Island, my parents chose to celebrate Christmas over Hanukkah.
My father, Marvin—who led our family Seders year after year, reading from the perpetually wine-stained Maxwell House Haggadah—was the same man who, acting on Santa’s behalf, secretly stayed up late on Christmas Eve assembling toys, filling stockings, and wrapping presents for my brother and me to discover on Christmas morning. With our faces pressed against the cold living room window waiting for holiday company to arrive, Dad always pointed out, with great authority, the footprints in the snow that Santa’s reindeer left during the night.
And my mother, Betty—who lovingly taught me how to make the fluffiest, lightest, melt-in-your mouth matzo balls from great-grandma Rebecka’s recipes—also cheerfully baked sugar cookies in the shape of Christmas trees to leave out for Santa on the night before Christmas. Because no one should ever go hungry in her house, she wanted to make sure our visitor would have something to nosh on while delivering presents to our suburban home before heading out on his long night’s journey. That the cookies would always be mysteriously gone the next morning but for a plate of crumbs was to me the true miracle of Christmas, proof positive of Jolly Old Saint Nick’s existence.
Though my belief in Santa Claus was happily nurtured, the more “Christian” elements of Christmas were left unspoken at home. Still, once I entered grade school, it became harder to ignore them, and I felt slightly queasy being a Jewish kid who celebrated a holiday that Jews weren’t supposed to celebrate.
For many years I kept this peculiar part of my past classified, revealed on a need-to-know basis to other Jews who might look askance at this celebration. Memories were stored away in an emotional closet already bursting with family secrets. An amalgam of guilt and embarrassment assured it would remain there.
Keeping this secret was easy, as little evidence remained of those early Christmas merriments. The few color photos taken of me sitting on Santa’s lap at a department store mysteriously disappeared through the years, although two faded black-and-white snapshots of our Christmas parties with my grandfather survived the purge. In a household of serious savers, where every school report and drawing of mine was preserved for decades, the disappearance of any memorabilia of this chapter of my childhood was noteworthy.
It was only recently, while closing down my parents’ house of over 60 years, that I found physical confirmation of our Christmas observance. Sorting through myriad boxes, I stumbled upon my pink, silk-covered baby book. Along with a record of my vaccinations and my very first steps, was a record of “Baby’s Christmas Gifts,” conscientiously documented in my mother’s familiar handwriting. There is nary a mention of Hanukkah gelt received, but a single recording of what Santa delivered for my third Christmas, including a lollapalooza of gifts, from a toy Texaco gasoline pump to a Ginette doll.
Memories flooded back: the toasty aroma of hot roasting chestnuts in the crisp winter air as Mom and I gazed at window decorations in the bustling city at Christmas time; the acrid smell of the hot curling iron as I got my hair cut and curled for the holiday at the children’s hair salon at Best & Co., a tony department store, where I would exit looking-picture-perfect for sitting on Santa’s lap in Macy’s; the bitter taste of licking the 4-cent stamp to put on my letter addressed to Santa at the North Pole with the neatly printed list of toys I wanted; awakening at the crack of dawn in a chilly house to run into our living room, astonished by the sight of dozens of toys—including that much desired gas pump—that had not been there the night before and were now artfully arranged on our coffee table.
For all those early childhood Christmas memories, I had no recollection of also lighting eight skinny candles on Hanukkah, though evidence indicates we did. A careful inspection of the two photos from our Christmas parties from that time reveal a silver menorah sitting on the breakfront in our dining room. With a quiet pang of regret, I realized it was clear that Hanukkah did not hold a candle to Christmas for me when I was very young.
I began to wonder how my mother, raised in a kosher, Conservative Jewish home, felt as she inscribed the Yuletide gifts her little girl got for Christmas. Reading her carefully written list in her less than Palmer-perfect penmanship, I wanted to read between the lines. I felt sad, pondering if she went along with these Christmas festivities willingly, or because as someone prone to accommodating others, she was pushed in this direction by my more secular father.
Mom put her foot down at certain traditions: A balsam-scented Douglas fir or shiny silver aluminum Christmas tree with sentimental ornaments never embellished our living room. And although ours was not a kosher home, a holiday ham was strictly off limits, as forbidden as a creche. She most certainly did not want to keep Christ in Christmas.
What would she have thought, I wondered, if she knew that on those visits to Santa I secretly felt glad that with my blond hair and blue eyes, I could fit in perfectly not only with other little good Christian boys and girls who waited patiently on line, but with the children I saw pictured in my Little Golden Books?
Neither parent wanted me to deny my Jewishness. But when it came to Christmas fun, they did not want to deny me that, either. Their children would not be mere observers. It was about inclusion. While other Jews showered Hanukkah gifts on their children, inoculating against envy of Christian children and their Christmas merriment, my parents preferred to embrace Christmas itself. It would be years before I learned I wasn’t alone.
Despite there being a long history of American Jews celebrating Christmas, I never knew another Jewish family that did so when I was growing up. It was, however, my father’s family tradition.
By the time my paternal grandfather, Papa Moishe, was born in 1885, Christmas had begun to slowly change from a purely religious to a secular holiday in America. Newly arriving immigrants in New York City, including Eastern European Jews like my great-grandparents, were exposed to the Yuletide spirit in schools and shops, and some began celebrating the secularized Christmas as a way of assimilating into the new culture. “Who says we haven’t Americanized?” The Jewish Daily Forward quoted several immigrants as saying in a December 1904 article. “The purchase of Christmas gifts is one of the first things that proves one is no longer a greenhorn.” With Santa bypassing Jesus as Christmas’ poster boy it was easy to slip into the Christmas spirit. Eager to establish himself in America, my Orthodox great-grandfather Simon embraced celebrating Christmas as making him “like a regular Yankee!” Because Hanukkah was an unassuming, minor holiday at the time, Jewish immigrants like mine could try on American culture without forsaking their own traditions.
It also helped that Moishe was born on Dec. 25—just like Jesus. Nearly as revered, he was the firstborn American son of Russian immigrant parents, which made his birthday a significant celebration, with family gatherings on Christmas Day. My observant great-grandmother Toba kept a strictly kosher home in their spacious Queens apartment so there would be no Christmas treyf but the dining room table would be laden with whitefish with crinkly gold skin, blintzes, and herring swimming in cream sauce. Eggnog could be included in the milikhdike festivities. After everyone exchanged gifts, they would gather round their mahogany upright piano belting out “Jingle Bells” as Moishe’s sister Minnie played.
Although many second-generation American Jews challenged this embrace of a festival that, despite its secular trappings, was fundamentally Christian, Christmas became a tradition carried over into three generations of my family.
But my visits to Santa stopped abruptly when I was 8. With my brother’s bar mitzvah looming, our family joined a Reform synagogue. Finding something they might not have known they needed, both parents immersed themselves into temple life, with my father going on to serve two terms as president of our synagogue. Once I began Hebrew school that year, Christmas gifts terminated. Perhaps as an effort to solidify my identity as a Jew and dispel any confusion, Hanukkah would forever replace Christmas in my home. Family gatherings still continued on Dec. 25, but the only gifts were for Papa Moishe, the birthday boy.
Golden, lacy latkes replaced lebkuchen in my affection and the holiday songs sung around our electric organ were about the Maccabees and their miraculous oil—not the magic of flying reindeer. Now that the gift-giving stretched out to an unbelievable eight days, Santa’s singular visit paled by comparison.
Revealing my rendezvous with Santa Claus brought confused looks from friends in Hebrew school. Ironically, my father thought that by celebrating Christmas he would save his children from ever being considered the outsider, but now among Jewish friends I was just that. I felt judged disclosing my extended family’s long history celebrating Christmas, so I chose to keep this “tarnished past” boxed away, just as Mom had done with the red plastic Santa that stood watch on our Emerson TV during the holiday season.
After I closed down my parents’ house, that well-preserved pink baby book came home with me, along with other family heirlooms, including something I had never seen before: my great-grandparents’ ornate, heavy, brass menorah. Hidden in a dusty cardboard box for decades, it was now deeply tarnished from neglect. Once home, I polished it back to its original luster so that my own reflection was visible.
In my parents’ musty basement, I took back not only my Christmas past, but reconnected with my Jewish one, too. Now, every Hanukkah, that ornate brass menorah shares a place of honor in my living room next to my parents’ silver-plated one, where the flickering glow from their holiday candles illuminates my home with my heritage.