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Prompted By Holidaze

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I get very grouchy this time of year. I hate going into any kind of store, because they are invariably playing Christmas music. Even if they avoid the blatantly religious songs, and stick to “Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” it’s still a reminder that for this entire month I am not part of the dominant culture, and almost everyone out there is excited about a holiday that I don’t celebrate.

The worst is the people who greet you by saying “Are you ready for Christmas?” I used to respond with “I don’t celebrate Christmas,” but now I have taken to saying simply “Yes.” This always stops them cold, because normally people are never ready, and still have oodles of presents to buy, a tree to trim, cards to send out, and all that other stuff that I do not do. So they are freaked out by the idea that I am finished with all that. I get a small amount of enjoyment out of this, but really would rather just skip the whole thing.

I know there is Chanukah too, but it’s not the same. Nobody spends an entire month getting ready for Chanukah. And it’s a very minor holiday, that has only been built up to be a big deal in an attempt to compete with Christmas. Really it should just be about lighting the candles, playing with dreidels, and eating delicious foods fried in oil, principally latkes and jelly doughnuts. Because after all, every Jewish holiday is about eating.

When I was a child, my family exchanged presents on December 25th. Not because that day had any significance for us, but because that was when all our friends were getting presents, and my parents didn’t want us to feel left out. When we came downstairs that morning, there would be five piles of presents on the hearth in front of the fireplace in the living room. My father’s and mother’s piles would consist of one or two presents – probably they each gave each other something, and maybe we kids gave them presents too, undoubtedly chosen by one of my sisters, certainly not by me. The piles for each of the girls were bigger, and mine was generally the biggest of all. We all opened our presents and then went off and did whatever one did during school vacations. Not a terribly exciting day, as I recall.

My first husband really wanted to have a tree, and I guess I agreed to it initially because it didn’t matter to me. Then after we had children I didn’t want to have a tree any more, but I couldn’t take it away from him. I can’t remember whether we put presents under the tree or gave them out when we lit the menorah. We split up when the kids were five and two, so after that they had the tree at one house and the menorah at the other house. Fortunately my second husband was okay with not having a tree, even though he had always had one growing up, so we avoided that problem.

When my kids were still at home, I always bought eight presents for each of them, one for each night of Chanukah. Silly, I know, but most were small things. One night was always calendar night. One night was book night. The rest were toys in the early years, then games, and finally clothes when that’s what they wanted. Now that they are grown, I generally don’t get them any gifts at all unless they are here visiting, in which case I will take them shopping and buy them whatever they want — but not until after Christmas, to avoid the crowds in the stores.

In the last dozen years or so our custom on Christmas Day has been to see a movie and eat Chinese food. We try to pick the movie that is going to win the Best Picture Oscar. We have generally guessed right, except for the year we saw Lincoln and the Oscar went to Argo. Who could have predicted that choice? Right around now I’m starting to read columns about end-of-the-year movie releases, so I can figure out what movie we should see this year. And I’m hoping to get some good ideas from next week’s Quick Takes here on Retrospect.

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Oh Suzy, I understand!
    But at holiday-time in New York with its large Jewish presence, things are a bit different. Menorahs coexist with Christmas trees in many shop windows, parks, and apartment buildings. Hanukkah cards & decorations share the aisles with Xmas stuff in Hallmark stores, and inevitably every year our doorman asks one of us Jewish residents if he is lighting the electric menorah in our lobby from the right – or should I say from the left – end!
    But of course anti-Semitism lifts it’s ugly head here as well. Last year a large menorah in Carl Schurz Park in my eastside neighborhood was defaced with swastikas, and with our current political climate I fear more of the same.
    A good friend of ours is president of his small Jersey City synagogue where a vigil was held last week after the murderous attack at a kosher market in that town.
    But Suzy rest assured that on December 25 most of us New York Jews will be heading to the Chinese restaurant after the movie.
    Happy Holidays!

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks Dana. I’m sure it IS better in New York, or at least more even-handed, but I find it annoying that Chanukah, which is a very minor Jewish holiday, had to be elevated into a big deal to compete with Christmas – and it sounds like that is even more true in NY than here. Why can’t people just do their celebrating of whatever they want at home, and not have it take over all the public spaces? That’s what makes me the most grouchy.

      • Suzy, I hear what you say, and am sorry it makes you grumpy.
        Come east to visit – probably too late to plan for this holiday season but maybe next?!?
        New York is fun this time of year and I’ll be so happy to meet you and to ply you with latkes and jelly donuts!

  2. John Shutkin says:

    A great story about the Jewish Christmas experience. Lots in there we can all relate to, including the ambivalence and, yes, the grumbling about not being part of the dominant culture. “War on Christmas?” Just another absurd Fox News myth.
    That said, I am glad that you have been able to carry on in California the most important New York Jewish Christmas tradition: Chinese food and a movie. Do please share with us what your choice(s) for the latter end up being.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John. As I said, I’m waiting to see what movies people write about on next week’s prompt. I wish I could say that I cleverly planned this when we were deciding on prompts, but it actually never occurred to me until I was writing this story.

    • John, I remember at Christmas time when Elena Kagan was a newly appointed Supreme Court justice, she was asked how she planned to spend the holiday.
      “Like most Jews, “, she said, “I’ll probably go to the movies and then out for Chinese food.”

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, I am with you on this one. We certainly celebrated Hanukkah when I was little and when my kids were little. We went years without even lighting a menorah around here after the kids were grown until last year when I realized that I missed it, so I do that now, but that’s about it. I always liked singing Christmas carols in school, but that was because I like singing.

    I’m appalled when the Christmas decorations go up in stores right after Halloween now. ENOUGH already! And certainly those “holier than thou” folks who are opposed to every social justice movement around are NOT following the true precepts of Jesus, as far as I’m concerned. And don’t get me started about the separation of church and state.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks Betsy. I have always lit a menorah even if I didn’t do anything else. I love to sit and watch the candles burn all the way down. That’s the essence of Chanukah for me. Well . . . that and eating latkes and jelly doughnuts, which I would never eat any other time of year.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Suzy, you voiced so many feeling I have about the Christmas/Hanukkah thing. We never had a tree and our Christmas tradition was the same as yours, Chinatown followed by a movie. Our next door neighbors really did a bang-up Christmas complete with a beautiful tree, tastefully decorated windows featuring candles, poinsettias, and perfectly trimmed cookies. My youngest was best friends with their daughter and went there every year to help decorate. Now, she has her own tree (sigh).

    • Suzy says:

      We have lots of neighbors who put up beautiful light displays, and it’s fun to look at them, but at the same time it’s yet another reminder that we are different. I always feel so relieved when December is over.

  5. Risa Nye says:

    Suzy, it looks like many of us commenters share similar sentiments at this time of year. I’ll be in New York over the holiday, so to counteract all the boughs of holly everywhere, we are going to see “Fiddler” in Yiddish. What better way to celebrate! And I’m sure Chinese food will be consumed. After my husband and I got married, I held off for 4 years but finally agreed to get a Christmas tree. Funny story. Maybe I can sneak in another submission to this prompt!

    • Suzy says:

      By all means, sneak in another story on this prompt! I think a funny Christmas tree story would be great! And . . . my nephew is in the cast of Yiddish Fiddler. You will love it! I’ll send you an email!

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