A Merry Un-American Christmas
Once again this year, Chow Bella writers are gnawing on the holidays -- in the form of stories of Christmas and food. Hope you have some Alka-Seltzer handy. Enjoy.
At around the age of 7, I began to notice that the way we celebrated Christmas was odd. Un-American.
For starters, my two younger brothers and I hung our stockings on our bedposts, not from the hearth, like the other kids who lived around us in semi-suburban Washington D.C. For another, there was a suspicious dearth of blinking lights and piney wreaths at our house: just the old wooden nutcracker-soldier, hauled out for yet another December's worth of service, and maybe a poinsettia in the living room somewhere -- not center stage, but there.
And there was a Jewish star on top of our Christmas tree.
As a child, this detail struck me as one of the lesser differences between our house and that of the Brittons, an enormous Roman Catholic clan across the street whose Christmas tree, topped with a bright angel, always made ours seem small and somber by comparison, but I have come to understand it as key. My father was Jewish. He must have celebrated Hanukkah as a child, but that was worlds away, in other languages, before Hitler, and he didn't speak of it, even when we lit the Hanukkah candles in our own living room. So the star of David on top of the Christmas tree, cut from cardboard and wrapped in tin foil, was a nod to the mixed nature of our family.
Today, there are synagogues that welcome mixed families. But in the '60s, there seemed to be no community that would have us as is. If my mother had converted to Judaism, perhaps. But my mother, who made the choice to raise us Jewish because she knew what it would mean to our father, did not want to convert just because strangers expected it of her.
What she did, instead, is erase much of her own childhood, so as not to confuse us. Because my mother is not just "not Jewish." My mother is the daughter of an Anglican priest, steeped in the church of England. Had her own father not died of a heart attack when she was only 21 but instead lived to see my mother meet my father, she never, by her own admission, would have married a Jew.
Whether our Hanukkah was like or unlike those of other families, we couldn't say, having few Jewish friends at school. But we knew our Christmas was different. It may have had something to do with the fact that there was no Christ in it. Instead, Christmas in our house was about presents, family togetherness, and English Christmas dinner.
That dinner, the highlight of the 25th, the path to which was paved by the unwrapping of gifts, held the day's meaning. It consisted of a goose, or sometimes roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. Mashed potatoes. Some kind of green veg. And for dessert, the flaming Christmas pudding, carried from the kitchen to the dining room table by my mother, who first doused it in brandy and set a match to it, so the fire danced over the surface as she walked toward us, smiling. Every year I tried and failed to take a picture of that fire, and ended up with a photograph of my mother looking proudly down at a dark lump on a plate. Sometimes there was a festive sprig of holly atop the lump.
It isn't pudding in the American sense. It's more like a dark, dense, moist carrot cake, served warm so that when you put a teaspoon of boozy sweet buttery hard sauce on top of it, the sauce melts into the pudding. The ingredients sound revolting: grated raw potato and carrot, currants, suet (suet?), all of it mixed together weeks ahead of time, with each of us children taking a turn to grasp the wooden spoon, stir and make a wish before my mother steamed the result, then froze it to keep for Christmas.
Was our family Christmas strange because our father was Jewish, or because our mother was English? In short, yes. But it was ours. And when, for about a ten-year interlude, I was married to a Jewish man who wouldn't have a Christmas tree in his house, or any Christmas dinner, and I, thinking that a real Jew couldn't have Christmas, that I would have to give up these childish things and eat Chinese food in exile like all the other real Jewish Americans, agreed, I felt a terrible loneliness, as if in exile from the only country where I ever really felt at home.
Post-divorce, my daughter and I returned to the traditions of my childhood. Every year, we light the Hanukkah candles, but we also buy a modest Christmas tree and decorate it, then top it with a tinfoil-covered cardboard star of David. The star always seems to hang a little askew, but it makes me inordinately happy.