It is a fact universally acknowledged that having a birthday on Christmas sucks.
Here’s what they ask me every time, they being every nurse who ever stuck me with a needle, every cashier who ever signed me up for a rewards card, every disembodied voice at a bank or insurance company wanting to confirm my identity.
“Did you get cheated on presents?”
No, no, a thousand times no. I did not get cheated on presents.
However, I got cheated like every other Jewish kid of my era. Plus some.
For 11 months a year, I was like every other American kid. The ice cream truck came by my house. My parents took me to fireworks on the Fourth of July. Superman came on my TV five days a week and The Wizard of Oz came on once a year. And when I went to the movies, there were cartoons ahead of the picture.
But Christmas, I was the other. Christmas was a coveted, alien, potentially treasonous thing. And it just so happened to be the ultimate perk of American childhood—the whopper, the grand prize, the big kahuna. And getting to open presents on December 25 didn’t begin to make up for it.
That Long Hot American Christmas started exactly on Thanksgiving morning—not like now, the day after Halloween—ushered in by the Macy’s parade. My brother and sister and I sat cross-legged on the sofa in our pajamas, just like we did on Saturday mornings, happy not to have school, oblivious to any smells or noises that might be coming from the kitchen, fixated on the bulbous cartoon characters that lurched down the parade route like zombies or drunks. We were disappointed whenever they cut to human-sized marching bands and indifferent to the grand arrival of Santa Claus.
Because, of course, Santa was not only human sized, he was completely irrelevant. A generous uncle with presents for everyone else.
In adulthood, I marveled when I learned that my friend Mary, a Jew of German descent who’d grown up in Hartford, had had a Christmas tree and opened presents on December 25. But in northern Virginia in the 1960s, Jews did not have Christmas trees. There were jokes about Hanukkah bushes and rumors of families who supposedly had them. But if I’d seen one, I would have been shocked.
One year, in a tentative experiment in assimilation, my mother actually hung stockings, which we opened on Christmas morning. She filled them with nuts and clementines, which is how I learned that small orange fruits are associated with Christmas. There were also a few little unmemorable toys. But the pleasure of this experiment was outweighed by a sense of shame. The experiment was never repeated.
Christmas swirled all around us, an unending blur of red and green. Our lack of Christmas lights marked our homes as surely as lamb’s blood had marked the doors of our forefathers when they fled Egypt. Hannukah with its eight nights of presents was offered as a sop for our deep sense of tribal deprivation. We made blue and white chains out of construction paper and taped them to our ceilings. We stuck Hannukah candles in menorahs with bad wax build-up, our mothers placing tin foil under them to protect the table. They burned out within half an hour.
One year, in an attempt at fair play, our teacher gave over one of the class’s two main bulletin boards to the four Jewish kids to decorate for Hannukah. She and the 26 other kids set upon the other bulletin board for Christmas.
I don’t remember what we made, only the sense of embarrassment when I stood back and looked at the bulletin board the Christian kids made with the help of the teacher—elegant, sophisticated, like a full-throated production of the Nutcracker. Ours was crude and childlike.
I languished under a giant seasonal inferiority complex.
Then there were the Christmas carols. Somehow, public school was the only place that remembered to keep the Christ in Christmas.
In this, our little tribe turned from deprivation to jaw-clenched civil disobedience. Other times of the year, we sang traditional American songs. I had a mule, her name was Sal. In December, it was Christ our Savior is born.
I stood there, my heart beating crazily, wishing I could become invisible, feeling squeezed between two glass panes.
Hebrew school had prepared me for this test, with stories of Jews like Eleazer, who spat out pork when it was forced into his mouth, choosing to be flayed to death rather than betray his faith.
So when we got to those words, I followed Eleazer’s example and clenched my teeth, hoping nobody noticed that I wasn’t singing.
And then, Christmas Day itself, when the great Christmas celebration left the public sphere and went quietly inside. We Jewish kids could only imagine the scenes playing out beneath our friends’ Christmas trees, and we only had every Christmas movie in the world to help us do it.
The hush of the day was in direct proportion to all the buildup. The cacophony of the holiday stopped dead, leaving an eerie silence, like when the ocean retreats during a tsunami.
The day wasn’t much better for being my birthday. Yes, I got to open presents in the morning, and yes I got a birthday dinner at night. But never a party. “Christmas is important to them,” my mother explained. For one of the shortest days of the year, it seemed to stretch on forever. I was just another Jewish kid sulking in the suburbs waiting for the tradition of Chinese and a movie to be invented.
Have Jews suffered more? Of course. This wasn’t an attic in Amsterdam. It wasn’t even an American tragedy. It was an American disappointment.
“It was,” I told my husband-to-be in 1983. “Like they were having the biggest party in the world and I wasn’t invited.”
Turned out it was the same at his house in northern New Jersey—except for one crucial difference. The Lower East Side was just a car ride away. And so one year, his father bundled up the kids and drove them to Delancey Street.
On that slender limb of a story we began to build the three-ring circus that has come to be known as Debbiemas.
Every American Jew has to make their peace with Christmas. Eventually, we’ve got to grow up and put our jealousies aside—or else succumb to them.
But me, I win hands down.
I’m the grown-up kid who gets it all. I take as much of Christmas as I want—pine cones in a bowl in the living room and the Spotify Christmas mix does it for me—but not enough to feel like a traitor. My mother was wrong: I do get a party on Christmas Day, and I also get to program it. Sushi instead of Chinese? Fine. Brownies instead of cake? Up to me. I also get to pick out the movie. Non-negotiable. And damn it if they didn’t like The Lion in Winter, which they’d never have agreed to any other day of the year.
So it may be a fact universally accepted that having a Christmas birthday sucks and that you get cheated on presents, but that’s only for people who haven’t discovered Debbiemas.
By some sleight of hand and the force of tradition, I seem to have won the birthday lottery. Why, it’s just like —you should pardon the expression— a birthday and Christmas all wrapped up in one.
Debbie Galant is a journalist, novelist, podcaster and publisher of the site MidcenturyModernMag.com.