Thursday, December 11, 2008

"A Jew At Christmas"

I once sat on Santa Claus’s lap.

A Jew at Christmas. It’s a complicated time.

I’m seven years old, standing in line at Eaton’s Department Store, waiting to meet Santa, and tell him what I want. My mother, also a Jew, seems untroubled by these circumstances. There was this line of children at the Santa display, and my mother said, “Go.” I’m at the back of the line. And I’m moving up.

And all the time, I’m looking around, scanning the room searching for some Toronto Hebrew Day School teacher or student snitch, who could rat me out to Mrs. Snider, the school principal, after which I’d be severely punished. This was no paranoid delusion (though I’m hardly above those). Years later, I’d receive a month’s detention for eating a non-kosher hamburger from the nearby Carousel Restaurant.

A month’s “D” for a forbidden burger. How long would I be punished for consorting with the primary symbol of the “other” religion’s most important celebration? We’re talking in the vicinity of O.J.-level prison time.

Not only was I betraying my religion with my actions – I may not have my facts exactly correct, but I believe that during the Spanish Inquisition, Jewish children were threatened with the rack for refusing to sit on Santa’s lap, and they still wouldn’t do it – I was also not coming clean with the dominant religion of the land, by which, I mean Christianity.

I did not belong in that Santa line.

But in line I was, and suddenly at the front. I look at my mother. She says, “Go.” So I go. You could sense trepidation in my every move. Fortunately, it was misread by his “helpers” as Santa-facing stage fright.

I find myself being lifted onto the lap an oversized, jolly man, sporting a fluffy white beard and a fur-trimmed red suit. Santa asks me my name. I make sure to only tell him my first name. “Earl” sounds unquestionably Christian. That’s why they gave me that name. Camouflage for situations like this.

Santa then asks me what I want for Christmas? I immediately start to sweat, and it’s not ‘cause I’m wearing my snowsuit indoors. What am I gonna tell him, “I’m Jewish”? He’ll call a policeman.

“Arrest this boy for impersonating a Christian!”

It’s the quintessential Christmas dilemma: A boy on Santa’s lap, lying about his religion.

This is totally unacceptable. You know the line from the song:

“He knows if you’ve been good or bad…”

I’m certain lying to Santa Claus qualifies as being bad. And if there’s any truth to that song whatsoever, He knows!”

The situation is “lose-lose.” As a Jew, I’m not in line for Christmas presents from my family. And by lying to him, there’ll be no presents from Santa either. On top of all that, if my shenanigans get reported back to Snider…

Sweet Juniper! It’s “lose-lose-lose!”

In the end, I did get some “holiday” presents. But they were never anything I had asked for.

This year, Christmas and Chanukah run pretty much head to head, Chanukah arriving three days earlier. It’s not like you have to choose or anything, but in the spirit of blogospheric candor, I have to tell you: I’ve always liked Christmas better.

Ow. I just felt a betrayal in my soul.

Listen. Chanukah is an exceptional holiday, an upbeat change-of-pace from Jewish holidays involving groveling for forgiveness, or the destruction of the temple. I do feel less than virtuous celebrating a military victory, considering the carnage and such, but if there’s a choice, victory is considerably better than being driven into the Diaspora. Again.

During Chanukah’s eight days, we light candles, eat potato pancakes, sing Chanukah-related songs, play dreydl (top)-spinning games, every ritual signifying the miracle that is Chanukah. In case you’re not aware of what that miracle was, it concerns some lighting oil discovered in the holy temple, which appeared to be sufficient for only one day’s use, but the oil, miraculously, lasted for eight. I may be not totally accurate about the details, but one-turning-into-eight thing I’m pretty sure about.

These days, Chanukah has evolved into a major present-giving holiday, some parents giving their kids one present on each of the eight days. This ritual signifies, I believe, overkill. Our family doesn’t go the “eight presents” route, but we are into multiples. As our girls grew older, the presents got more expensive. When they were kids, it was,

“Look! Two presents! The toy, and the cardboard box it came in!

Now, it’s I-somethings and lap tops.

However it’s evolved, I enjoy Chanukah. It’s a wonderful holiday.

But it’s not Christmas.

I grew up knowing Christmas was this enormous party that wasn’t for me. Though sometimes, I did get to go as a tourist. When we were young, neighbors would invite my brother and me over to help decorate their tree. They gave us handfuls of tinsel and sugar cookies shaped like elves. We threw the tinsel and ate the cookies. Then we went home. It wasn’t our holiday, but we enjoyed the visit.

The Christmas Season invariably lightens my spirits. And I’m crazy about Christmas carols. (Man, I’m going to hell. Wait – Jews don’t have hell. Awright!)

I always liked Christmas carols. At Ledbury Park Junior High – where I majored in typing and singing – Christmas meant learning the alto part to Silent Night. (Later, at Bathurst Heights Collegiate, Fraulein Wiesener taught us to sing it in German.) Our annual Christmas assembly meant Neville Nuby’s stirring rendition of my favorite Christmas carol of all, Oh, Holy Night.

To this day, around Christmas season, I’m in the shower, with the really great acoustics, and suddenly out of nowhere, I’m booming out with full-throated emotion,

“Fall…on your knees…”

I know I shouldn’t be singing that. But what are you going to do? It’s a really good song. Especially in the shower. (Though I’ve been known to reprise my performance on the street, until some family member forces me to stop.)

Not that there aren’t problems for me around Christmas. I get way too many “Tree Ornaments” catalogues I can’t use. And I’m constantly required to intercept salespeople before they envelope my Chanukah presents in red and green wrapping paper. Plus, there’s nowhere to eat out on Christmas Eve. On the other hand, I have no problem getting into any movie I want.

I’ll finish with this.

If you do happen to be outside on Christmas Eve, stand still for a second, and just listen.

It’s really quiet out there.

Basking in the calm and comforting silence, you can feel the possibility of peace on earth, the reassuring sense that everything’s going to be okay.

That feeling, I think – I hope – is not reserved for one group of people.

It’s for everyone.


Michael said...

I think you hit on facet of Christmas that gets lost in the economic hustle and bustle, it is a holiday that focuses on a birth and the peace that birth is supposed to represent.

Anonymous said...

“Arrest this boy for impersonating a Christian!”

You had no danger of that. Santa has nothing to do with a Christian Christmas.... though I could see how it would seem otherwise to a young boy.