Today Cindy Rizzo stopped by to give us her thoughts on this time of the year:
Right on schedule during Thanksgiving weekend, the trees start showing up on Broadway. Crowded together on the sidewalk, tied up for easy carting to apartments on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, they add much needed greenery to the urban landscape.
And then the posts on Facebook begin. People shopping, baking, taking kids to see Santa, decorating their houses, turning on Christmas music and listing their top five holiday films. Last week, the food baskets from vendors started arriving at my office, tempting me and getting scarfed down by staff in a matter of hours. Coworkers who spend the weekend baking will offer up surplus cookies and cakes. And my evening calendar has already begun to fill up with parties and events.
Yes, you guessed it. It’s that time of year—the time of being an American Jew at Christmas.
I watch this activity from a distance, even though it is swirling all around me and sometimes I’m even participating. It’s really more of an emotional distance than a physical one. Basically it comes down to the fact that I wasn’t raised with it and so all of the excitement and preparation and emotion borne of childhood memories just aren’t there.
I’m not one of those people who resent it or who complain about the hegemony of Christianity in the US. Maybe because, even though I was raised Jewish in a Jewish neighborhood, my father and part of my extended family are Italian Catholic. My Jewish mother—who instructed me never to kneel in church when we’d attend a baptism, wedding or First Communion on the Rizzo side—was also very clear when she said in so many words, “Enjoy the day with the family, but remember, this is not your holiday.”
So I had fun and was grateful for the presents I received and the home baked cookies and great family gatherings. My dad put a tiny silver Christmas tree with pink lights in one window of our apartment and the electric menorah, the quintessential symbol of every Jewish home in the 1960s, in the other. I never asked for the bigger tree or for a visit from Santa, though I didn’t really have to. My father dressed up as Santa for both his grandkids and for the Jewish kids in our neighborhood.
So I have a fond appreciation for Christmas and all of its manifestations. But I’m also not one of those people who can view it as secular, divorced from the birth of Jesus and merely a vestige of pagan winter rituals. To me, it is not a winter holiday or an American holiday, or whatever. It is a Christian holiday. In any case, it sure isn’t Jewish.
It was odd and in some ways wonderful a few years back when I spent Christmas in Israel. There were no trees, no lights, no cookies, no red and green. In Tel Aviv, it was just another day. All I kept wondering was, “How did they do that?” I know if I’d been raised with Christmas, it would have been depressing to spend that day in a city that doesn’t acknowledge it. But for me, it was kind of a relief. Like taking a holiday from the holiday.
So what do I do on Christmas? In the past I’ve seen family, which I sometimes still do. When my kids were younger I spent the day with my friends and their kids, most of who did celebrate. There was a stereotypical lesbian potluck and we always had a Yankee Swap where we wrapped white elephant gifts that could be traded amongst ourselves. There were a few years when I took my kids to the Pine Street Inn, a homeless shelter in Boston, and we served Christmas dinner.
For my wife, Jenny, Christmas is a big art project. She sends out scores of holiday cards following a meticulously crafted address list that notes each person as someone who needs a Christmas card, a Chanukah card or a generic holiday card. Her envelopes, decorated with beautiful stickers, are works of art in themselves. The people at the post office, who are usually pretty surly, love her.
Lately, Jenny and I have participated in what is known as The Jewish Christmas—Chinese food and a movie. In Manhattan, the Chinese restaurants are mobbed on December 25th and the theaters—filled with Jews and Christian refugees fleeing their families—are jam-packed.
It seems like a fitting compromise, marking the day as somewhat special, being around my people, and having a fun time.
So to all who celebrate, have a Merry Christmas (or a Happy Christmas if you’re in the UK) and just remember that, for some of us, you’re gonna have to understand that on a gut level, we just don’t get it. And that’s okay. We’ll likely still drink the eggnog.