When I was four years old, I believed in Santa Claus. My Jewish parents weren’t quite sure how to handle this, and during our very early years, they begrudgingly indulged us in the myth of Santa Claus to the best of their abilities. On Christmas morning, my brothers and I would awaken to a modest circle of gifts in the living room. We tore off the wrapping paper with glee, only to find some strange practical gifts inside the pretty paper and bow. I received a slip to wear under my dresses and I remember my mother exclaiming, “Wow, how did Santa know you needed a new slip?” Even at four years old, I realized a slip was a strange Christmas present for an old man with a beard to bring you. My brothers both received plaid lunchboxes, because Santa obviously knew this is what they needed as well. We also got a paint set with the kind of paint that is as hard as a rock, needs water to make it at all functional, and cracks into tiny pieces after one use. After receiving our questionable gifts, we figured out Santa was a sham, decided Christmas was overrated, and slowly accepted our fate as Jews.
From that year on, Christmas was out and Hanukkah was the only holiday we celebrated in December (well, until 2013 when we got a new holiday, Thanksgivingukkah). At the same time, my parents stopped buying us gifts and instead started giving us money. Each year we would get a check for five or ten dollars which we were told we could “keep” in mom’s bank account. By age ten, my oldest brother realized that my mother was earning interest on all our Hanukkah money and wanted to stage a coup to regain what might have been as much as a few dollars in interest.
My mother insisted on having an authentic candle menorah, rather than an electric one, but she had a tremendous fear of fire. I was at least twelve years old before my mother let me light the candles without her shaking hand holding mine. Each night of Hanukkah, she would sit white knuckled by the candles until they burned out, clutching the glass of water that was always kept by the menorah in case of fire. By the eighth night of Hanukkah she was an emotional wreck, and it took her until the new year to recover.
We tried to embrace the festivities of Hanukkah, but after three spins of the dreidel and the 5th piece of gelt (Yiddish for kosher chocolate that doesn’t even come close to Ghirardelli), we lost the Hanukkah spirit and went to check out the menorah to see if any major pieces of furniture or family members had caught fire yet.
By the time I was in grade school, I realized that my Catholic friends were having all the fun with their tree trimming parties. My friends with non-religious families seemed to always have a tree as well, and even all the Jews on the block had Christmas trees. These Jews ended up with the best deal of all, as they celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. If Kwanzaa had been a popular holiday in Queens back then, I’m sure they would have celebrated that as well. In addition to celebrating both holidays, the Jewish kids I knew had roped their parents into Hanukkah’s “one gift for each night of Hanukkah rule”; a ploy I was sure was made up by Jews in the 1970’s in an effort to compete with Christmas and make Hanukkah seem like a more important holiday than it really was. I tried to “keep up with the Joneses” (or in my case the Levy’s) by cashing my $5 or $10 check at Bank of Mom and purchasing gifts for myself which I would then tell my friends had been purchased by my parents who seemed to have a sixth sense for knowing what I wanted. I gave up on the idea of trying to purchase eight gifts, because even in 1973 there was little you could buy once you divided $5 by eight.
I’m making up for all the Hanukkah gelt and guilt big time now with my own children. We now celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas (with a tree), as well as both of their birthdays during the month of December. Following the festivities and the obscene assortment of gifts (I have never given my kids money as a gift), I remind my kids not to ask me for so much as a stick of gum until at least August. Some years we light the menorah; others we don’t. But I’ve never had an electric menorah, and yes, now it’s my turn to sit white knuckled by the fire.