Both my husband and I grew up with presents, a jolly, bearded man in a red suit, and a festively decorated pine tree come December-time.
The only difference was, he was a little African-American boy in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. And I was a little Jewish girl in Odessa, Ukraine, then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (You might remember it as Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire, while Sting wondered, “Don’t the Russians love their children, too?”)
Unfortunately, at the time, the Russians – who, full disclosure, do, in fact, love their children, too – had a bit of a problem. Communism had banned all religious practices, religion being an opiate of the masses and all. But, darn it, if the populace didn’t still want their symbols and their holidays and their celebrations, to go along with owning the means of production and throwing off the tyrannical yoke of capitalism.
So the trappings of Christmas: Santa, trees, gifts (themselves originally pagan, but I’m really getting off topic here) were summarily moved from January 7, Russian Orthodox Christmas, to December 31 and January 1, New Year’s Eve and Day, the biggest party on the calendar.
Little Soviet children went to sleep on December 31st with visions of Napoleon desserts dancing in their heads, and awoke to community celebrations featuring Santa and presents and a big, green “yolka” festooned in tinsel and twinkling glass orbs.
All little Soviet children. Even Jewish ones. Because this, remember, was a national holiday, not a religious one.
When my family and I moved to the United States in the 1970s (traded for wheat, as per the Jackson-Vanik Amendment), we continued the tradition. (We were especially delighted to discover that all Christmas ornaments and paraphernalia go on blow-out sale Christmas Day, and that if you wait long enough on December 24, the street vendors will actually give you a tree for free rather than driving them back to where they came from. America! What a country!)
Eventually, we figured out that Jews don’t do Christmas trees in America. (Though what a Hanukkah bush is, we’re still not particularly certain about.) So we stopped having one. No more ornaments, no more Grandpa dressing up as Santa while the youngest girl got to be his helper, the Snow Princess. We still celebrated the New Year with gifts and loud family get-togethers and plates upon plates of food. Just no more visibly Christian trappings.
And then I grew up and moved away and married a non-Jewish man. On the condition that we would have a Jewish home. And that our children would be raised Jewish.
He agreed. Presumably on the assumption that I would be the one in charge of making said home Jewish.
And I do. Most of the time. We celebrate Shabbat on Friday nights, and host a Passover seder in the spring. We had a bris for both of our sons, and a baby naming for our daughter. We got to temple for Rosh Hashanah, we fast on Yom Kippur, and the only bacon in our refrigerator is of the faux, turkey variety.
But, then December rolls around, and everyone asks us, “However do you manage the holidays?”
Well, on December 25, we go to my in-laws’ house and magnanimously allow them to shower our children into a coma of happiness with gifts. (We also dutifully reciprocate and participate in the Orgy of Conspicuous Consumption. America! What a country!)
But, when it comes to sharing my cultural traditions with the children in December, I… uh… Give me a minute.
I am a Jew. But, I am not an American Jew. (Seriously, can someone tell me what a brisket is?) When it comes to the December dilemma, I have no traditions to share with my children. No socially acceptable ones, anyway.
Sure, we can put up a menorah and light the candles, and give out eight nights of practical gifts that I would have bought the kids anyway (gloves, umbrellas, electric toothbrushes). But, I can’t talk about “When I was a little girl we…” or “Our family always…” My Jewish roots may go back to slavery in Egypt, but they bypassed America on the way.
Perhaps it will be easier for my children (after they’ve finished explaining how they came to be Russian speaking, Jewish African-Americans). Perhaps their childhood December memories will include both Christmas with Daddy’s side of the family, and Mommy learning about Hanukah right alongside with them. (We spin the little top-thingie why now? We fry what? Why would you want to ruin a perfectly good potato in this manner?)
Or perhaps they’ll start new traditions of their own. Quintessentially American ones. And teach them to me. (As the saying goes, “In America, the children raise the parents.”)
And maybe then they’ll stop asking why there’s a balled up Santa suit stuffed into the back of Grandma and Grandpa’s garage.