My name is Beth. I’m a closet Christian.
I come out every December with the lights, garlands and rusty ornament hangers.
Immune to disdain from observant friends and relatives on both sides of the aisle, I plead nolo contendere.
While others are still picking at turkey carcasses, I’m aging 80-proof eggnog worthy of a Hallelujah Chorus. Candy-cane earrings in place, yule log crackling in the woodstove, I am among the first to fa-la-la-la-la.
My seasonal aberration surfaced early. As my cousins lighted menorahs and hoarded foil-covered gelt, I hung tinsel — one strand at a time. My Jewish friends sang, “Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel.” But I had trouble carrying that tune. I found comfort and joy caroling with my Christian friends on the street corners of our town. Today I wail, “Fall on your knees,” as I pick mistletoe berries from the oriental rug.
Each December my dad, brother and I would make the rounds in search of the perfect spruce. No spindly Charlie Brown tree for us. No sirree! We had strict standards and spent hours judging trees from every angle, even the side earmarked for the corner. I lived for those annual pilgrimages, my breath a contrail in the frosty air, thick smoke curling from oil-drum fires.
Every year my mother would greet us with hot cocoa and kvetch that we had spent too much money on a sap-dripping, needle-shedding symbol not our own.
On Christmas Eve during my teen years the house became a haven for friends who, after choking on overdone roast beef and dogma, would stop by to fress our holiday nosh of corned beef and rugelach, listen to Sinatra croon, “I’ll be home for Christmas” and play with my younger brother’s toys.
Several Christmases later my groom, raised in a more catholic Jewish household, was unamused when he tripped over the eight-foot spruce blocking the TV in our shoebox apartment. To maintain peace at home as well as on Earth, I purchased a menorah and bloodied my knuckles grating potatoes for latkes.
As a young mother I overcompensated for my wayward youth. I ix-nayed the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, clove-studded oranges and twinkling lights and, every 25th day of Kislev, immersed myself in Hanukkah.
A minor holiday on the Judaic calendar, Hanukkah is to Christmas what grape juice is to Veuve Cliquot. But I persevered. We would gather on the first night over brisket and, in the true spirit of the holiday, exchange small, meaningful gifts such as bath salts and shoelaces. These tokens reflected the miracle of the oil as T.M.X. Elmo does the birth of Jesus.
As the children grew we compromised, lighting candles at Hanukkah and exchanging presents on Dec. 25. I filled vases with evergreen boughs so the house would at least smell like Christmas.
Now, decades later, we gather for brunch on Christmas morning and exchange gifts over bagels and buche de Noel.
I gaze lovingly at my rainbow family: My daughter and son who, despite their meshuga upbringing, emerged as responsible adults; my West Indian son-in-law who celebrated the holiday with a dozen siblings and a pig roasting in the yard; my daughter-in-law whose family exchanged gifts before midnight Mass so they could sleep until noon on the 25th; and my four heathen, ecumenically correct grandchildren, who are the greatest joys of any season.
I watch them take turns spinning the dreidel between mouthfuls of homemade Christmas cookies. And I can’t help thinking, isn’t this the true spirit of Christmas?
(Reprinted from The Washington Post 12/25/06)