A Different Kind of Christmas
Searching for our better angels
By Deborah Salomon
Prediction: Christmas will be tricky this year. Parades are iffy or off. Office parties face extinction. Caroling spreads COVID’s aerosolized particles. Can department store Santas fit masks over fake facial hair?
My upbringing afforded a different kind of Christmas — one that provokes criticism, some justified. This was the secular Christmas celebrated in New York and other large cities, in the late 1940s, when the Yanks came marching home to open arms, jingle bells and roasted-chestnut vendors on every street corner.
This “Christmas spirit” was enjoined by people of all faiths, or none. It was slammed as commercial, a sacrilegious riff on the real thing.
My father came from an ultra-orthodox immigrant Jewish family. My mother was raised Southern Baptist, in Greensboro. My father rebelled against the rules while holding tight to the cultural/culinary part. He laughed as Hanukkah became the “Jewish Christmas,” because it falls sometime in December. No matter, as long as he had a plate of latkes, the signature Hanukkah food. My mother did not seek church affiliation. But they both loved Manhattan Christmas. That meant a tree, gifts, fruitcake and the holiday show at Radio City Music Hall. For me, it also meant standing in line to see the animated windows at Fifth Avenue department stores.
They were magical, musical, depicting Christmases of yore, when ladies wore long skirts and tight bodices and gentlemen, waxed whiskers and wainscots. Some added sugar plum fairies, ballerinas, ice skaters on mirror ponds. Music tinkled from outdoor speakers.
Oh, how I wanted to jump into those scenes, like Alice into the looking glass.
Because, sadly, my childhood was less than storybook.
That changed, somewhat, when we moved to Asheville. I was 11. My parents joined the Reform temple. I attended Sunday School and High Holiday services. We still exchanged gifts, sent cards to friends, hung a holly wreath on the door. No tree. My husband was Jewish; we raised three children in a 99.9 percent Jewish neighborhood, home to many Holocaust survivors. No trees, wreaths or lights except for the electric Hanukkah menorah (candelabra) in the window. I became expert at celebrating Jewish holidays at the table and elsewhere. My homemade crispy mini-latkes replaced fruitcake and eggnog, which was fine, although I missed some trappings of a secular Christmas, just not silly songs round the clock.
In Asheville I noticed that the Jewish community delivered Christmas dinner boxes for the needy, volunteered at hospitals and nursing homes so employees could have the day off. Jewish people do that in many places, as well as “eating Chinese” at the only restaurants that stay open. Therefore, for 35 years as a newspaper reporter I worked every Christmas. This took the form of a 24-hour Yule Log. I logged in at midnight Mass, the bus depot, rode the pre-dawn ferry across Lake Champlain, ice skating, fancy hotel buffets, afternoon movies and anything else I could find. I did that here for a while, beginning with a candlelight service on Christmas Eve, ending at Neville’s, after the last turkey carcass had been picked bare. Lately, I’m limited to the Project Santa bike giveaway early on Christmas morning. What a glorious sight: hundreds of shiny new bikes for children Santa bypassed. I wept, as did many volunteers who postponed holiday brunch to help each child find the right wheels, while Brenda Lee blared “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”
I understand why the devout deem secular Christmas offensive. But I was a lonely only child, star-struck by the beauty. And now, during December, I don’t see why charitable acts and goodwill toward all should belong to a single faith. Therefore, I will forever roast chestnuts with Nat King Cole. On my playlist “Feliz Navidad” rates up there with anything Billy Joel. Because whatever motivates people to perform kind deeds deserves respect.
For sure, Christmas will be tricky this year. More unemployment, illness, poverty, isolation. Fewer turkeys, toys and trees. A perfect setting for practicing humanity — secular or sacred.
In 1966, Broadway lyricist Jerry Herman wrote a song for “Mame,” set in 1929, at the onset of the Great Depression:
We need a little Christmas,
Right this very minute
Candles in the window,
Carols on the spinet . . .
For I’ve grown a little leaner,
Grown a little older,
And I need a little angel, sitting on my shoulder . . .
We need a little Christmas . . . right now!
Works for me. PS
Deborah Salomon is a contributing writer for PineStraw and The Pilot. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.