Growing up in South Florida, as much as I loved the holiday season, I sometimes felt a little deprived that our experience wasn’t out of a storybook. There was no snow, no snowmen, no sledding. Much of the time we wore shorts, went to the beach and could see the lights strung on the palm trees on our neighbors’ lawns. And though the feeling of deprivation was partially geographic, it was also partially religious. Being Jewish, the proliferation of Christmas and Christmas related merchandise, decorations, and TV specials, easily made Chanukah pale in comparison.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved (and still love) Chanukah and my family’s own traditions. But as a kid, “Herman the Chanukah Candle” was a poor substitute for Rudolph. While Chanukah included a “great miracle” that I now appreciate for its place in the traditions of my religion, at the time it certainly wasn’t as miraculous as Santa’s one night delivery service, complete with flying reindeer, sliding down chimmneys, (nevermind that we didn’t have chimmneys in Hollywood, Florida), and the ability to do all of this without anyone hearing or seeing a thing. Unsurprisingly, Jesus never entered into my equation, but Santa loomed large.
I never wanted a “Chanukah Bush,” which was a pathetic attempt to co-opt the majestic Christmas tree (this was well before my awareness of the Pagan Yule and Winter Solstice and my understanding that early Christians had swiped this tradition themselves). I certainly didn’t want to get dressed up and go to church, like my friends had to do. But, there was always something about the spectacle and lore of Christmas, and its place in a kid’s imagination, that I couldn’t help feel just a tiny bit envious about. Fortunately, I had a lot of friends who weren’t Jewish and I was lucky enough to share in their families’ Christmas traditions, so I didn’t feel completely left out.
Outside of my family’s Chanukah traditions, among my favorite December memories are decorating the Christmas tree at Nicole’s house. I picture us taking all of the decorations out of the garage. We would unwrap all of the delicate ornaments, family heirlooms and macaroni creations alike. Nicole and I would choose the perfect spot for each ornament…always on the bottom third of the tree, because we were short little girls. We ate cookies and candy canes while decorating and there was always talk of what wonderful things Santa might bring. I felt such a reverence for this tradition, as in my mind, this is what it was all about. And in the same generous way that Nicole shared her family’s tradition with me, I hope that I was able to share my family’s tradition with her.
Growing up in a suburban landscape means that you are usually surrounded by people who are just like you. I’ve always felt lucky that I had friends who were different from me. My experience with Nicole and her family, as well as with other friends’ families (setting the table with Christmas dishes at Gina’s and eating date nut bread and cream cheese at Kim’s immediately spring to mind), gave me a taste of different traditions that enriched my life immeasurably. And though I am now aware of the religious significance of Christmas, what my childhood experiences left me with is that the religion part (at least for me) is not what’s important. It’s about family and beloved friends, and the the joy of time spent together and shared memories.
I still go to Florida each year for the holidays. I still love my family’s own traditions. Lighting the candles and exchanging presents on Chanukah. Eating brisket, latkes and zucchini pancakes (that one is all our own). Chinese food and the movies on Christmas Eve (like Jews around the world!). Stone crabs and watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. As I read through this entry, it’s clear that food is an ever present part of these traditions and memories. I’m Jewish, so this is no surprise. But held in my heart are the feelings that this time of year always evokes for me. The freedom of school vacation and the ability to sleep in. The cooler air that sometimes greets us in Florida, meaning the oppressive heat disappears and we can open the windows and enjoy the fresh air. The relaxation of a vacation and the lifting of any pressure that day to day life includes. And though family dynamics can sometimes make things stressful, I try each year to walk away from the holiday season, renewed and refreshed to start another year, fortified by the love of my friends and family and the rare few days when we don’t need to worry about anything else but being together.