Mixing the holidays

A little cross-religious indulgence isn't going to damn anyone to an eternity in hell. Is it?

Published December 22, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Every year on Pearl Harbor Day (for some perverse historical reason known only to my dad) the family bundles up and heads to the neighborhood Christmas tree farm, located in the Fedco parking lot. We split up to canvas the grounds and search for the perfect, towering, full, fat pine tree. Dad grumbles about the exorbitant price of the tree as he straps it to the top of the Cadillac and we take surface streets, not the freeway, to get home.

Once we get the tree in the living room, Dad sets it up in its stand while Mom makes hot apple cider and then we all trim it together. We don't sing Christmas carols, but that's because none of us can really sing. We do put on the "Wayne Newton Christmas Album," which is actually older than the angel that goes on top of the tree.

So what's wrong with this merry picture?

We're Jewish.

When my sister and I were young, my parents didn't want us growing up without a Santa Claus. That was the explanation for both a Christmas tree and a menorah at our house. All our grade-school friends were jealous. Not only did we get eight presents for Chanukah, but we also had boxes and boxes of wrapped treasures under the tree. We were smug about our voluminous December booty, and we bragged about our dual holiday celebrations like we might boast about speaking two languages.

My mom converted to Judaism when she married my dad. Her family is huge, with tons of cousins and uncles and aunts deeply entrenched in the tradition of giving gifts wrapped in red and green on Dec. 25. A reeducation process would have been necessary to deprogram them of their Christian holiday habits.

Of course we're not the most religious family. Then again, none of us believes that Jesus was the son of God, and we're fiercely proud of our Russian-Jewish roots. But asking the extended family to learn a new holiday and throw their seasonal shopping out of sync just seemed like too much of a bother. So Christmas kept a-coming.

As CCJs (Christmas-Celebrating Jews), we had these weird Christmastime rules. We always ate lasagna for our holiday dinner while making puerile jokes about the goyim. The tree always went in the same place, in the corner nearest the kitchen. We weren't allowed out of our rooms before 7 a.m. on Christmas morning, regardless of what time we really woke up. So my sister Shelby and I would whisper to each other with our toes on the thresholds of our bedrooms.

When the digital alarm clock sounded our freedom, we scampered into our parents' room to wake them up. They tortured us by taking their time to brush their teeth and put on their robes before Dad went downstairs to see if Santa had delivered. Shelby and I would wait at the top of the stairs in our new Christmas jammies until Dad gave us the signal and we could come thundering down. It really was a race. The first one downstairs got to be the first one to open a gift.

One year, little Shelby got the jump on me with a well-placed elbow. She ran straight for the corner of the family room next to the kitchen, where we traditionally placed the tree. Except this year, for some reason I cannot remember, it was on the opposite side of the room, next to the fireplace (and had been for over three weeks).

"My God!" she shrieked into the empty corner. "Santa didn't leave us any presents and he took our tree!" she bellowed before collapsing into a wailing, 7-year-old fetal ball.

Yet there was the Christmas tree, lights blinking and all, right where it had been since Dec. 7. We all sort of looked at each other before Mom scraped Shelby off the carpet and pointed her hysterical head in the direction of the sparkling tree.

Her conniption quickly turned to joy and we proceeded with a normal Jewish Christmas.

Now that we're adults, it's my favorite Christmas memory.

Shelby just had her first baby. Despite the aforementioned incident, she and her non-Jew husband are following our parents' example by doing both Chanukah and Christmas. Who can blame her? Christmas trees smell good! And they look really pretty! And waking up early to tear open gifts that have been taunting you for weeks is really fun! Besides, a little cross-religious indulgence isn't going to damn anyone to an eternity in hell. Um, is it?

By Gentry Lane

Gentry Lane is an American writer living in Paris.

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Christmas Religion