I have a confession to make: I am a Jew who loves Christmas.
I love the twinkly lights and the TV specials and watching the kids at the mall line up to sit on Santa's lap. I love red and green Cap'n Crunch. Every year, I spend months daydreaming about what to buy friends and family, and hours at the stationery store, agonizing over just the right yuletide greetings.
I make hundreds of star-shaped Christmas cookies and stay up all night, icing each one. I like all the carols, but my favorite is "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." I blast it on the car radio, make sure the windows are up, and sing a duet with Bing, sobbing happily, brimming with seasonal joy.
"Amy shines at Christmas," my husband tells our friends, as I'm struggling to tie the reindeer antlers around the dog's head, or coercing cocktail party guests into decorating gingerbread men.
Someone should start a support group for us, the Jews who love Christmas. For as much as I throw myself into the season, there's always been something missing, something more than the Christmas tree I've never had.
I don't think it's religion -- really, I don't. Like most of my Christian friends, my love of Christmas has nothing to do with faith in any force beyond that of Visa and Mastercard. But the fact that I'm a Jew has always made me feel like I'm cheating, stealing the holiday from those who deserve it, crashing the world's biggest party, year after year, never invited. Even the least pious Unitarian has more of a claim to Santa than I.
I'll live with the guilt, in exchange for some of those red and green M&Ms.
It's probably genetic. My mother is a closet Christmas-loving Jew, too. There's a story she told me when I was in the seventh grade and she and my dad came home from a holiday party to find that, dejected over not having a Christmas tree, I had decided to make a Chanukah bush out of a gift-wrap tube and some colored Xerox paper.
She said that when she was 7, growing up in Forest Hills, New York, the big apartment buildings near Queens Boulevard were covered with shiny blue Christmas balls. She begged her mom (my grandmother, Nanny) for a tree, never expecting to get one. To her surprise, her mom said yes. ("I think it was her revenge against my dad's orthodox mother," my mom told me recently. "That was the one who wouldn't give Nanny the stuffed matzo ball recipe.")
There were three conditions: The tree was to stay in the basement. It had to be of the tabletop variety. And my mother was to tell no one.
So the purchase was made. The tree sat on the pingpong table in the basement, decorated with an ugly string of multicolored lights --"the kind that looked like more electrical cord and less light," my mom remembers. She sat alone in the basement and sobbed.
When I was growing up, my parents dutifully trotted out the menorah every year and made a show of celebrating Chanukah -- which is, let's face it, the also-ran to the Holiday of Holidays. (I mean, really, how can a bunch of Maccabees hope to compete with Baby Jesus? And a dreidel just doesn't stack up to a ride on Santa's lap.)
But we had Christmas, too. Sort of.
"Santa Claus doesn't discriminate!" my mom insisted cheerfully, but I always secretly thought that he did. My sister and I got our big gifts during Chanukah, so while my friends had endless piles to open under the tree on Christmas morning, we had just a couple of boxes. And while we did have stockings, they were Chanukah stockings (yes, really!) -- blue and white, embroidered with the Star of David.
But no tree. Never a tree. Yes, it's a pagan symbol, but certainly no worse than humming "Away in a Manger" around the house. Yet we never had one. I recently asked my mom if this had something to do with her own tree memory, and she said no, that she'd never really thought about it, but she supposed that a Christmas tree was just too much of a commitment to a holiday that isn't hers to celebrate.
The Christmas spirit lives on in my mom; to this day, she still drapes the menorah with tinsel.
Last year I married a fallen Catholic, which gave me instant entree into a world that includes a real Christmas celebration with the in-laws, complete with red and green stockings and presents piled under a real Christmas tree. I love losing myself in the revelry of the day, a celebration without apology.
But not in my own home. The first Christmas we lived together, my mom presented my now-husband and me with a Christmas tree. A tabletop model, sprayed gold, but a bona fide Christmas tree, nonetheless. She figured that my alliance with a fallen Catholic bought me the right to a full-blown Christmas.
And so did I -- until I got the tree home. I stuck it in a closet and eventually gave it away, settling, as usual, for my iced cookies and greeting cards.
I know my mom understood.