Fall on your knees! O hear the angels’ voices! O night divine … Ohhhhh night when Christ was born!
Each Christmas our high school put on a pageant that could have rivaled any hit musical on Broadway.
The members of the choir would come down the two aisles of the darkened auditorium, wearing baby blue satin full-length robes, each carrying a lit candle. I would cry and whisper-sing and pretend I was among them.
Every year I tried out for choir, and every year Mr. Stanley, the choir director, would say, “Your voice isn’t the problem, Nancy. You actually have a good voice. It’s just that I know you, and you’ll disrupt an already rowdy crew. I just can’t take the chance with you.” So I was condemned to celebrate silently.
By the time I had hit high school I already had a bad case of Christmas Envy anyway. Not being able to walk down that aisle just exacerbated it.
Growing up Jewish in neighborhoods that were mostly gentile, Christmas morning was my Room 101. (“1984,” Orwell.)
“Whatja get, whatja get?” was the excited mantra I heard as kids tumbled out of their houses with their new sleds and new skates and new jackets and new scarves and new everything. It wasn’t just that Chanukah (which almost always coincided, datewise) couldn’t compete (and we were told by the rabbis that it shouldn’t compete), it was the beauty, the glitter, the tinsel, the colors, the glamour.
I remember in seventh grade going to Arlene Keefe’s house and seeing the tree, which reached the 14-foot ceiling, and all the decorations, with a shiny gold star at the top. This, she said, carefully touching one of the ornaments, is from my great-grandmother. This one, she said, letting me hold it, was my Dad’s great-great-aunt’s. I was in awe. (There’s the reason I don’t like the expression “awesome.”) I know what awe is. It’s not, “Oh, you guys are all coming over? Awesome.” “Oh, your mom is driving us ? Awesome.” No! No! No!
Awe is what I felt in the twinkling magic of a room in an old Tudor mansion, a Persian rug on the floor and a roaring fire in the fireplace. And Arlene’s brother, Walter, on whom I had a mad crush, sauntering through the movie set I had found myself on. I think I didn’t speak the whole visit. (Mr. Stanley would have appreciated me then.)
And of course, the sadness of not having a great-great anything, that most of my ancestors had perished in camps in Nazi Germany. So even if I had had a tree, the ornaments would have been bought at Woolworth’s.
I remember coming home kind of blue, and looking into our unused fireplace with the three birch logs someone had artfully stacked, saying to my mother, “Mom, you could actually burn those, ya’ know.”
Everything about Christmas was romantic. The movies, the music, the gift wrapping paper, and the fun of the actual gift wrapping. And, oh my God! The ribbon candy.
I keep bumping into people who say, “I hate this holiday. It’s so commercial. It’s so stressful. I’ve been dreading it since last year.” I’m tempted to say, “I’ll take it off your hands. Let me be your personal shopper. And I’m totally free to come over and decorate your tree.”
I do get those invitations. And sometimes I accept. But it’s not the same as going up to the attic or down to the basement and pulling out the big box of bulbs that have all that history.
One year two friends whom we’ve adopted were here for Christmas, and I got to shop for a tree. They called it a Chanukah bush. I called it a solstice tree. But of course I had nothing to hang on those lovely boughs. However, someone had just sent me a big box of grapefruit, and each one was wrapped individually in these paper squiggles which begged to be hung on a Jewish girl’s winter holiday tree.
This year, maybe because Chanukah came early, or maybe I figured out envy doesn’t go with peace and love and beauty, or maybe I’m just growing up and out of old childhood wounds, but I seem to be less needy about the holidays. I don’t feel left out, because I can shop and wrap with the best of ’em (we have an Xmas gift list), and I find myself singing “Joy to the World” (which I think IT needs more than I do).
So instead of calling my old nemesis Christmas Envy I’m renaming it: Soul-Stice Celebration.
Merry Everything, Everybody.