When I was growing up, we had a Christmas tree and a menorah at home. I was an only child raised by a single mother.
On each of the eight nights of Hanukkah we would say the traditional prayer and light the candles, and my mother would give me one small present: chocolate, socks, a book. On Christmas Day, we would eat lox and cream cheese on bagels with a side of bacon (we were far from kosher), and then go to a movie and later get Chinese food. I thought this was normal. This, I believed as a child, was what all families did on Christmas.
It wasn’t until my Grade 5 Christmas pageant that I came to understand that my family wasn’t like the other families in our neighbourhood and that I wasn’t like the other kids at school.
I grew up near Harbourfront before all the condo development, and before it was an artist residence I went to the Toronto Island School, which then had a Jewish population of two, including myself.
The other Jewish boy and I had no speaking parts in the pageant. Instead, I was the hump of a camel, and the other Jewish boy might have been the rear of a donkey. I don’t know how much this casting had to do with my mother’s fury, but she decided, though we ate bacon by the glow of a Christmas tree every year, that dramatizing the birth of Christ was culturally marginalizing to non-Christian students.
The school didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. When an administrator told my mother that “Christmas was for everyone,” she shot back, “No, Christ-mass is for Christ-ians.”
She may have threatened to get lawyers involved, for in the end there was a compromise: after Jesus was born, the other Jewish boy and I took off our respective camel and donkey hoods and lit a menorah in the centre of the stage.
Although, looking back, I think my mother was absolutely right, I hated her at the time for making me feel different.
The reason we had a Christmas tree in the first place is both silly and not so silly. My grandfather was a communist in Yonkers, New York, in the McCarthyite years. He was, as you might expect, a deeply paranoid man who wanted to blend in as much as possible. He felt celebrating Christmas would make his family appear more American.
Everyone knew, I guess, that communists might celebrate Hanukkah but would never celebrate Christmas. And so this way of recognizing both Christmas and Hanukkah became normal for my mother. We celebrated both holidays, in our own way, as far back as I can remember.
It became a time of year I looked forward to. What I enjoyed most about Christmas Day was walking through the nearly deserted streets of Toronto and feeling how on this one day the city, emptied of people, seemed to belong to us Christmas-Hanukkah-celebrating, non-practising, communist Jews. At some point, Christmas had become less about my wanting to blend in and more about celebrating just how odd we were.
Shortly before Christmas 2000, my mother died. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer less than a year before. As December 25 approached, I began to feel anxious about how I’d spend that day.
I spent the next few years kind of Christmas-surfing, going to a girlfriend’s family home with her till we broke up a year later, and then, in recent years, to the home of a childhood friend and his family.
The way they do Christmas isn’t religious but is significantly more traditional than anything my mother and I did. My friend’s family goes to one of those farms where you cut down your own tree. They do stockings and a turkey dinner. The presents are piled up under the tree, and the late morning and early afternoon are a marathon gift exchange. Although every Christmas stirs in me a heightened sense of my orphanhood, I’ve always felt grateful to be so warmly accepted.
But I don’t think I can go this year. Last year, I ran around for days before Christmas trying to find an appropriate gift for each member of the family. As I found myself dashing through the Eaton Centre, unease hit me like a lightning bolt, like St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, but in reverse.
I could nearly hear my mother’s voice – “Christ-mass is for Christ-ians” – and I could almost hear my grandfather, too, speaking from the one set of beliefs we really did have in my family, saying something in a ghostly whisper about the workers, the means of production, the labour theory of value. I think his exact words would have been “Hey, mashugana, what the fuck are you doing?” What was I doing? How did I get here?
So I think the jig is up. It dawned on me that I was also running away from myself, from who I am – an orphan who grew up kind of Jewish, sort of Marxist and little bit Christian for the sake of assimilation, who now has no idea what to believe or what to do with myself at this time of year. But I know I like moo shu pork. I know I like going to movies and feeling how quiet the city is on Christmas Day. So perhaps that’s a place to begin – again.