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When it comes to holidays, the more the merrier
The little Jewish girl mystified by Santa grew up to be a woman who savors her celebrations of two religions.
By Alice Graves, Special to the Times
Published December 18, 2007
Growing up Jewish, I learned about Christmas from TV. And I was intrigued.
I lived in a bubble where nearly everyone was Jewish - storekeepers, friends, teachers. But I knew that outside of the bubble the rest of the world celebrated Christmas.
I knew that the TV families I longed to be a part of - the Andersons, the Stones, the Cleavers - were Christian. They lived in neat little suburban houses, not in an apartment like I did, and every Dec. 24 Santa slid down their chimneys and left presents under their trees.
I received Hanukkah presents from my parents and grandparents. Usually these gifts were clothes, but there were also chocolate coins, which we call Hanukkah gelt, and small spinning tops, or dreidels.
However, I began to long for a tree - rising majestically in the living room, of all places - that would be festooned with silvery balls and colored lights.
Underneath it would be a ton of seductively wrapped gifts.
The mystery of Santa
But it was Santa Claus who really intrigued me. I wondered how he had time to visit so many children all over the world on Christmas Eve. And I wondered how he got into people's apartments to deliver gifts. After all, apartments didn't have chimneys you could shimmy down.
An apartment is not easy to penetrate without a key. Anyone who has ever watched Seinfeld knows you have to get buzzed into the building first. After you ride up to your floor in the elevator, you have to ring the doorbell.
I knew Santa was not going to risk waking up whole families by buzzing and ringing: His entire M.O. was stealth.
It would take all night just to do New York City, I reasoned. Santa simply didn't have the time to visit the whole world in one night. This was a problem I pondered year after year.
I also wondered how Santa knew I was Jewish since he never, ever visited me. Nevertheless, every Christmas Eve I looked longingly into the night sky to try to find Santa and his reindeer, hoping he'd make a mistake and pay me a visit.
Then one day my grandmother told me there was no Santa Claus. (She also caused me to discover there was no Tooth Fairy: One morning I awoke to find her standing over my bed, fishing in her purse for a quarter, last night's dislodged tooth still under my pillow.)
A Cleaver Christmas
I went to college in northern New York, where for the first time I met many kids who were not Jewish. I was as alien to them as they were to me. My roommate remarked that I was the second Jewish person she'd ever met.
I became friends with a girl named Dottie, who came from a small town called Natural Bridge, and at Christmas she invited me to go home with her. The morning after we arrived, Dottie, her sister and I went out with an ax and a saw and cut down a small fir tree. The three of us dragged it to the house, and placed it in a stand with a bit of water to keep it moist.
Her mother had taken out boxes of decorations, and we girls got to work: We strung up popcorn and hung colored balls, tinsel and lights. We did all this while we drank hot chocolate with marshmallows bobbing on top.
We drove to the mall and shopped for presents. At midnight, we went to church. It was my first time in a church, and I was certain I would be struck dead in punishment.
In the morning, we opened our presents. Dottie gave me thick woolen mittens, and I gave her a copy of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, required reading in 1969.
Christmas with Dottie's family was like being in a dream, or like living inside the TV set for a few days. The Father Knows Best clan couldn't have done it better.
I always thought Dottie had brought me home because she felt sorry for me, being Jewish and from the city. But I didn't care: I had a great time.
After the school year ended, Dottie and her boyfriend drove out to the Pacific Northwest, and I never heard from her again.
Later, I married a Catholic, and so Christmas came into my life again. For our first Christmas together we decided to buy each other several small gifts instead of one large one, so there would be lots of presents under the tree.
After our son was born we began celebrating Hanukkah as well: There were two sets of gifts and two occasions for colored lights.
I prefer when Hanukkah comes a couple of weeks before Christmas, as happened this month, so that my family can extol each holiday separately and savor its full spirit - a celebration of light, love and happiness during the darkest part of the year.
St. Petersburg resident Alice Graves holds an MFA in creative writing and has taught writing in college. Readers may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.