Christmas Envy

by

12/15/2005

E 77th St & 1st Ave, New York, NY 10021

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

Because I’m Jewish, my Christmas decorating habit started small. Creating yards of silver sparkle, I drizzled hundreds of tinsel strips on hanging plants spanning my living room window, which overlooks 77th Street near First Avenue. I clustered evergreens in vases too.

Although my husband David came from a more observant family than mine, he didn’t mind the white poinsettias I ordered from the florist. He figured they were only flowers. But he disliked the stemmed crystal bowl overflowing with tiny Christmas balls.

Undaunted, I purchased Yuletide cocktail napkins which accompanied a glass platter embossed with a bushy Christmas tree.

“Why don’t you slow down?” David said. “Sometimes when I come home, I think we’ve converted.”

But I disagreed. From the time our daughter was small we lit Chanukah candles and exchanged gifts. Half-dollar sized, my potato pancakes are brown and crunchy. We often invite our family to celebrate the holiday.

One year, my eight-year-old nephew stared at the festive accoutrements scattered around our living room. “Are you Jewish?” he asked.

“Of course I am,” I said, laughing. “It’s not like we have a Christmas tree.” I couldn’t bring myself to buy one. Instead, I coveted invitations to tree trimming parties, happily giving Christian friends elaborate ornaments.

I grew up during the fifties in Westchester County. While my family belonged to a Reform synagogue, my mother considered Christmas a bonus holiday. On December 25th, my brother and I tore open gifts wrapped in paper dotted with Santa and his elves. I still recall receiving a wool scarf with red and white stripes, resembling a candy cane.

Just so our gifts would have a home, my mother set up Christmas trees, which we decorated with garlands and ornaments.

At twelve, I began questioning this custom. “Is this okay?”

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “A Christmas tree isn’t a religious object. It’s seasonal decoration, like pumpkins and gourds.”

While I didn’t believe her, I still had an uncontrollable attraction to Christmas that stayed with me for decades. I longed to participate in this mid-winter fantasy. Christmas carols promised magic that I felt I deserved. Although I was an interloper, I couldn’t get the rhythm of the “happiest time of the year” out of my head.

Four years ago, I purchased a red and green runner for my dining table, placemats splashed with poinsettias, candlestick collars resembling wreaths, and a set of Santa Claus napkin rings.

“You’re out of control,” David said, trying to sound calm.

I wouldn’t admit it, but I agreed with him. It bothered me when pieces of silver tinsel landed on our brass menorah. Yet my Yuletide quest continued. I bought a tablecloth with leaping reindeers.

David tolerated this spectacle until December 2002, when he came home one night in a subdued mood. “Do you remember Joseph Stein?”

“From business?” I asked. “Didn’t he and his family visit New York from Geneva?” Because the Steins were Orthodox, we’d joined them at a kosher restaurant.

“I’ve invited Stein’s daughter Shira for dinner tomorrow night. She’s vacationing here and I thought it was the right thing to do.”

“Tomorrow night!” I stared at the red and green splendor of my living room, imagining it through Shira’s eyes.

David sounded apologetic. “Would you mind hiding all this stuff while she’s here? You can put it back after she leaves.” For an hour, we stuffed closets, finding places for every last bit of Christmas paraphernalia.

Shira arrived in a chic navy blue suit, her black hair pulled into a ponytail. She enjoyed the salmon steaks and salads that I’d prepared. Knowing we didn’t observe the Jewish dietary laws, she was comfortable at our table, as long as I didn’t serve unkosher foods. While our culinary differences didn’t bother me, my face burned with shame, hoping that the contents of my closets wouldn’t shift. I was terrified that a Christmas elf might roll onto the floor, blowing my cover.

After Shira left, I didn’t re-decorate my apartment. On January 1st, I packed seasonal items in boxes and piled them on the top shelf of a closet.

The following December, I never took them down. Much to my surprise, the dinner with Shira had changed me. I hated concealing my Christmas habit. I’ve always felt that if you have to hide something, it means you’re doing something wrong. At the very least, it proved that I was ambivalent about my behavior. Although my Christmas accoutrements remained cloistered in the closet, I couldn’t throw them away. Yet I resented this self-imposed intrusion into what had been a guilty pleasure, like calling in sick for work and staying in bed reading a novel.

Last December, my Christmas stash continued collecting dust. At the hairdresser I bumped into a neighbor who had just remarried. As Marie gushed about her wedding, a saleswoman walked in with a bag of Christmas accessories.

“You know I used to own all that stuff,” said Marie, shaking her head. “But when I got divorced, I sold my house and moved to Manhattan. My kids were grown and my apartment was small, so I stopped setting up Christmas trees. I shed my ornaments and trimmings. Would you believe my husband begged me to buy it all again?”

“What’s so odd about that?” I asked.

“My husband’s Jewish,” she said. “Although Bernie always yearned for a Christmas tree, he couldn’t have one…until now.”

Watching her select a Christmas tree apron with a tartan plaid, yards of golden garlands, and boxes of blinking lights, I flinched. Unlike most Jews who dabble with the forbidden Yuletide fruit, he wouldn’t have to justify a living room full of Christmas cheer.

“What would Bernie prefer on top of the tree?” asked Marie. “The angel or the star?”

“I’ve never even met Bernie,” I said, wondering if a lifetime of decorating for the wrong holiday had brought me to this.

“Won’t you help me out here?” she said. “Which symbol looks less religious?”

I asked, “Aren’t they both religious?” I realized why I can’t spruce up for the holidays any more. Yet I should have offered my merry accessories to Marie and Bernie. Their home is where a collection of Jewish Christmas decorations belongs.

The End

**

Linda Morel has written holiday food articles for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and her personal essays have been published in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Newsday.

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