Christmas morning on Humphrey Avenue in Richmond, California, the 1950s: the quiet before the wrapping paper storm.
While I enjoyed talking about eight days of presents, what I didn't talk about was how many of my gifts were practical things, like, oh, socks, for example.
Sometimes Chanukah would come before Christmas, which was good because the other kids were going crazy with waiting while we fired up the menorah with gusto and anticipation. And sometimes Chanukah overlapped Christmas, which made everyone happy.
We had lights; they had lights.
We got presents and so did everyone else.
While I enjoyed talking about eight days of presents, what I didn’t talk about was how many of my gifts were practical things, like, oh, socks, for example. And maybe a new nightgown. And books, can’t forget the books. Or the gelt: those little net bags filled with the gold foil-wrapped discs of chocolate that you could use to stake a game of dreidel, or just sneak off and eat. (These were much better than latkes, which I never liked anyway).
In my family, we learned early on that Chanukah was not a big deal holiday; it was not the “Jewish Christmas,” and my parents would never in a million years allow a tree of any kind to take up a corner of our living room, even if you called it a Chanukah bush.
The winter holiday season was kind of a mixed-up time for me as a kid. I knew that the other kids would be jealous when they learned that Chanukah (and here’s another thing: why so many spellings already?) lasted eight days and we got presents every night, but really, it wasn’t at all like Christmas, with the right after Thanksgiving build-up on the radio and on TV, and the music all the time — Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Drummer Boy and White Christmas — and the strings of lights on the houses and across the streets downtown and the store windows filled with mechanical displays of Santa’s workshop and winter tales, and all the toy commercials and Santa Claus ringing a bell on the corner or sitting in a big chair at Macy’s or the Emporium.
One of my aunts took me to see a department store Santa once. I believe I told him that I didn’t celebrate Christmas, but it was a pleasure to meet him anyway.
We sang Christmas songs at school and had a Christmas program, with a token dreidel song thrown in at the end. I remember asking my mother if it was OK to sing “Silent Night” and other carols at school. Could I say “Jesus” even? I worried about this. She assured me that it was fine to sing songs — they were just songs! (She sang those songs herself as part of a musical group she led called “The Mothersingers.” Really. They did a holiday show and sang many songs of the season with no side effects.)
So, even though I now celebrate Christmas with my mixed-up family (we have French toast made with challah and eggnog on Christmas morning — tradition!!), I still feel those long-ago twinges of anxious anticipation: waiting for everyone else’s new stuff to come out while trying to look excited about new socks. Not that there’s anything wrong with new socks.
Love this, Risa! We were like you: no Hanukkah bush allowed, tho we did decorate for the holiday (with cut out dreidels hanging from light fixtures, and, as you can see from my 6th birthday photo, a “Happy Hanukkah” sign strung across our mantel. We got gelte and such, usually one big present and then small stuff, and of course, my birthday always got thrown into the mix. And no, not a big-deal holiday, just got mixed-up with Christmas, so became the time to give gifts.
Also, like you, I sang all the Christmas carols. I was always in the choir or Glee Club (starting in 7th grade). I didn’t worry too much about singing about “Christ our Lord”. I knew I didn’t believe it and was just singing a tune, like any other tune. I am a serious singer, and have been all my life. As such, the music is almost always liturgical music. This semester, my chorus is singing the Faure Requiem (of course in Latin). That is just what we do.
Thanks, Betsy. I look forward to reading all the other posts on this theme! Glad to hear you are singing such lovely music.
Happy holidays Risa …. whatever!
Thanks! And the same to you!
You really nailed this one, Risa. I had all of your feelings growing up, especially the concern about Christmas carols, which I loved. In choir that’s pretty much all we sang at that time of year. Like you, I decided I would just mouth “Jesus,” but those songs were so much better than the Dreidel song, which was the only one we sang amidst so many beautiful carols. Love your Santa picture — ho, ho ho!
Thanks, Laurie. “Santa” in this picture is someone I actually know, which is kind of a hoot! My oldest grandson probably wondered why we were on such good terms!
After reading your comment to Laurie, I had to take a closer look at the picture of you and Santa, and yes, you are kissing him on the cheek! Makes more sense if he is an actual friend.
Thank you for expressing in your story many of the same things I was trying to say in mine – and other things that I didn’t think of, but were equally true of my childhood. The excitement of the other kids. Knowing that Chanukah was not at all like Christmas, even if we kind of pretended it was. Singing the carols at school, with the token dreidel song thrown in. Also, I love your youthful comment to the department store Santa, he must have wondered why you waited in line just to tell him that.