It's a joke as old as the tale of the Maccabees that for Jews, Christmas means Chinese food and a movie. But on Dec. 25, I don't want lo mein and "Toy Story 2." I want ham and "Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum." I want piles of gifts wrapped in shiny red foil, plopped under a piney, fragrant tree that glimmers with white lights and homemade ornaments.
As my grandmother would say, Is that so wrong?
My birthday falls near Christmas, and when I was young I'd get to round up friends for a party at the "Breakfast With Santa" show at the downtown Gimbels. I chewed giddily through the rubbery French toast and sat rapt during the mini-musical featuring Santa and Billie the Brownie, Milwaukee's most famous elf.
A decade later, in my high school years, I was Billie the Brownie. As a child actress--low on talent, but not bratty--I spent two years as Billie in the "Breakfast With Santa" show (brown and green corduroy, pointy hat and shoes, apple-red cheeks). The money was good, the candy canes free, and I got to miss morning classes every day for a month. Playing Anne Frank was more meaningful, but not nearly as fun.
I was the last Billie ever--when Gimbels shut its doors in 1987, so shut the storybook on Billie's life. My role in the legend is immortalized in the annual Billie the Brownie exhibit at the Wisconsin Historical Society, which displays, among other artifacts, my hat and pointy shoes.
The irony of a Jew playing Billie was overshadowed only by the fact that Santa was played by Marc Cohen, who now runs a synagogue.
After Billie was buried, I was recast as the Sugar Plum Fairy (shimmery purple satin, even pointier hat and shoes, silver-glittered cheeks). Santa was played by Joel Eckhardt, a blond right out of the WASP handbook. He wasn't roly-poly, but at least he was Christian.
Was. Joel recently converted to Judaism--Orthodox Judaism, to boot--but he's still a wonderful singer, and the same voice that used to bellow "Turn On the Lights of the Christmas Tree" now croons Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur.
I wonder sometimes if Joel misses Christmas. I'm happy being Jewish, I swear. But if I was born into Christmas, I'd never give it up.
I've dated Catholics, and I even went to Mass with one. On the surface, our differences seemed minor: They kneel and we stand, they put water on their foreheads and we put yarmulkes on our crowns, they have guilt and we have . . . guilt.
But they have Christmas, and we don't.
The weekend before Christmas last year I went with my friend Amy to her family's house in Eighty-Four, Pa. Before I left I spent hours at craft boutiques and Neiman Marcus picking out the perfect ornaments to bring as a gift. I nestled them in tissue, wrapped them carefully and tied it all up with red and green ribbon. I made a card with a construction-paper Christmas tree on the front.
When we got to Amy's house, I was greeted by a family whose warmth was not unlike what I'm used to at family gatherings. But the treats were exotic: broiled shrimp on toothpicks; martinis with big, firm olives; carols around the piano with Amy's brother, uncles and father. I knew every word.
After dinner, Amy's dad brought out a crystal dish with eight dreidels and a jar of Tootsie Rolls. When he heard I was coming, he'd gone into Pittsburgh to buy something to make me comfortable. But I had never done more with dreidels than spin them aimlessly; to play a real game, we had to refer to the instruction sheet.
The next day, after sleeping late, Mr. Joyce lit a fire and Mrs. Joyce brought out plates of cookies. Amy and I pulled Christmas records out of their fragile sleeves and played them while we decorated the tree. One by one, we plucked the pieces of Joyce family history from boxes and unwrapped them: gentle-clothed angels and twinkling crystal bells, needlepoint mailboxes and pewter medallions, crystal doves and clothespin Santas and soldiers and mice and snowflakes and skiers. (Do Jewish families save tiny objects by which they can calibrate their lives? Mine doesn't.)
The weekend was lovely-- lovelier than anything I'd experienced in a long time--but when Christmas Eve came, and other folks were gathered 'round the tree, living Christmas, I was at work, putting out the newspaper with the other Jews.
Hanukah had started, so when I got back to Washington I lit the menorah, chanted the prayers and opened a little box--a pear--from the Harry and David "Eight Nights of Chanukah" gift pack that my parents had sent me. Then I went to "Shakespeare in Love" and ate Chinese food.
I liked the movie, sure, and the sesame beef, but I wasn't totally happy. I felt as though I was missing something, and--even worse--felt guilty about that.
But not too guilty to go home, dim the lights and put on one of several Christmas CDs. My favorite tunes came on, one after the other--"White Christmas" and "The Christmas Song." It comforted me to be reminded I'm not alone in my Christmas envy: Both were written by (you guessed it) Jews.