As an elementary schoolgirl in the eighties, nothing made me more excited than the December days leading up to Christmas Day each year. Decorating the tree. Rehearsing “Frosty the Snowman” for the school Christmas Pageant. Driving through Chicago’s Sauganash neighborhood, famous for the homes’ all-out decorations and endless lights. Getting ready for Christmas dinner.
I was Jewish.
I am Jewish.
No, one of my parents didn’t celebrate Christmas.
No, I didn’t attend a private Catholic school (it was one of the Chicago Public Schools, in all its dilapidated building and overcrowded glory).
All of those holiday happenings were simply part of my winters, my neighborhood, my school and family friends. It’s almost like I, one of about four Jewish kids in my entire grade, got to celebrate Christmas, too!
At 46, I feel lucky to have the memories. It’s my own little version of the ghosts of Christmases past. As an adult, it doesn’t happen anymore.
That was more than thirty years ago, and the excitement and lights have died down for me now, but I remember every year with a smile. Each year, a little more wistful and a little more achy for the enchantment.
Some people seem shocked when I recount those memories, but I was grateful for every moment. I’d decorate the gigantic tree at my friend Deedee’s house every year. Downing the hot chocolate, I never could get the tinsel right, but I tried anyway.
We practiced holiday songs for weeks at school, in anticipation of the big Christmas Pageant we’d put on for parents. From the day my class received the handout of our assigned song, I religiously memorized the lyrics and shopped for just the right white shirt and navy skirt. Nobody complained back then that there were no Hanukkah songs. Nobody cared, including me. It was a simpler time… and it was winter holiday time.
On frigid Saturday nights before Christmas, my mom and I schlepped 20 minutes north in the car to drive through Sauganash to see the lights – a winter wonderland where every house went all out with decorations, and miles of lights paved our way. It seemed almost magical. I wished I could live there.
Four years in a row, mid-afternoon on Christmas Day, my stepbrother, stepsister, mom, stepdad and I piled in the car and drove to our family friends’, the Andersons. We were always invited to their big house for Christmas dinner. I hardly knew them (they had two boys; I thought the one my age was cute but was so shy), but felt so happy to be included. Their sons had dozens of gifts under the tree, but they always had one for me. No matter if I’d gotten eight great gifts for Hanukkah already; I totally looked forward to my Christmas Day present!
Holiday memories to me go hand in hand with winter. I don’t consider myself less religious because I enjoyed someone else’s holiday throughout my childhood. We snuck in on Christmas, and I’m glad for it.
I didn’t go to Church or experience what many might think of as the traditional and true meaning of Christmas, but I remember. Like the snow that always fell through the night back then, the monumental meaning of those moments are so clear now. The times seemed like they’d never end. But I grew up. I left Chicago, and I don’t see my best friends or mom every day, so I no longer “celebrate” Christmas much. I haven’t seen a Christmas tree in years. I don’t even celebrate winter much, but that’s probably due to my forty-something sleepy self. No more nights of ice skating in the park, or talking with my mom over a hot cup of Ovaltine at the kitchen table way past bedtime.
I think part of my fondness for holidays past is also a longing for childhood. They were times of wonder, times of togetherness, and little traditions to count on. I don’t care what religion you are. Those three things can always be cherished - regardless of religion.