The year I turned 11, I slept at my friend Sally's house on Christmas Eve. I was Jewish and new in town and grateful to have a friend who was not the pariah of fifth grade. She was blond and had the kind of pert nose that Jewish girls are rarely born with and would, in fact, soon be so popular that she would realize her error in her judgment in letting me be her friend. But for now, I was spending Christmas Eve at her house. In the morning I watched my friend and her three sisters open huge, brilliant packages that had been stacked under the tree while we were sleeping, even though they were all too old to believe in Santa Claus. My friend's mother, who wore a thick flannel robe and fuzzy childlike slippers, said, "Looks like Santa didn't forget our guest!" and handed me a small package. I split open the wrapping paper slowly, along the seam, opened a white box and found a coffee mug inside, decorated with a snowman and red snowflakes. At 11, I was already old enough to know that this was the booby prize.
Not that we didn't have our own family traditions and our own special way of alienating Christian guests. After lighting the Hanukah candles, I was not above watching an unsuspecting friend, unfamiliar with the tradition of letting them burn down on their own, blow them out. But Hanukah seemed lonely and quaint in the church-saturated New Jersey towns where I grew up.
My family was held together by only the most tenuous of ties, which would eventually unravel in my parents' divorce. There seemed to be fewer of us at holidays than the family of five that we were, probably because we were all working so hard at getting along and feeling Jewish.
My parents had grown up in households where the candles were lit every Friday night and kosher was kept: Cupboards contained two sets of plates and silverware (one for meat and one for dairy), and pork and shellfish were definitely other people's food. But in my childhood homes, bacon sizzled on Sunday mornings. My parents were Reform, modern Jews, free from the constraints of tradition, gratefully assimilated. And this was fine with me most of the year, normal in the neighborhoods where I grew up, where the few Jewish families around were like ours. When someone said to me, "I didn't know you were Jewish," it was a relief not to stand out.
But still we were Jewish, and this was never more clear to me than when Thanksgiving ended and the sound of carols began drifting through the shopping center where, after school, my friends and I competed to squeeze into the tightest jeans. When it came down to it, my family wasn't that assimilated. Instead of stringing lights and putting up ornaments, each night of Hanukah we lit candles and sang the blessing.
None of us was musical, but I felt embarrassed and hopeful when I saw my sister stretching for the difficult notes, my brother focusing on getting the Hebrew words right, my father reaching for my mother's hand. Hanukah was a celebration of a small, powerful miracle long ago; for me, it was also about the miracle of us, a family still all together, at least for these moments, singing an ancient prayer.
We even kissed one another when the prayer ended and each of the candles was lit. It must have been my mother who made up this rule, the kiss before the present, her way of staving off consumer greed. But our goodwill was usually depleted by the time we sat down for dinner, giving way to a collective disappointment in one another, our gifts, our attempts at religious ritual. My sister brought her book to the table; my brother's new firetruck lacked batteries. There was no Santa Claus to blame.
Things were both worse and better when we went to my maternal grandparents' house in Atlantic City for a night of Hanukah.
The same year I spent Christmas Eve at Sally's house, we took the three-hour trip to my grandparents' for the last of the eight nights, which that year happened to fall on Christmas Day. We were frazzled by the time we turned off the parkway, late because of the accumulation of bathroom stops three children require, and, as usual, we were not forgiven. "I was just about to start calling hospitals," my grandmother said, ushering us into her living room, where my grandfather and my paternal grandmother were pushing themselves up from their chairs to greet us. My grandfather was large and quiet. He called me over for a kiss. My father's mother was tiny and smelled like violet candies, but her opinions were strong and sharp. "Let me see what you've got on," she said to me, and I looked down at my long Indian skirt and platform shoes and knew I was in for it.
As a rule, my mother's mother did not believe in hors d'oeuvres -- extravagant appetite ruiners -- but on Hanukah we ate small mounds of chopped chicken liver on tiny pieces of pumpernickel bread. The chopped liver tasted earthy and foreign and private to me. It was the taste equivalent of my grandparents speaking Yiddish so the grandchildren couldn't understand. After the menorah candles were lit, my grandmother gave us little plastic dreidels and told us not to spin them at the dinner table.
When we sat down, the first course was already on the table, slices of cantaloupe and honeydew melon. But before I'd finished eating, my mother's mother whisked away our plates. According to her, we all ate either too quickly or too slowly. "Save room for dinner," she said to my father as she took his plate, his spoon in midair.
My father gripped his spoon tightly as the next course was served, matzo ball soup. "Why so much salt?" his mother asked him. "Have you ever tasted lighter matzo balls?" my grandfather said, speaking up only to change the subject. Our next course was latkes, the greasy potato pancakes traditional on Hanukah. My grandmother grated her potatoes thin, and, instead of chewing, I let the latkes dissolve on my tongue. I loved the delicate plates we ate from, the silverware kept in a velvet-lined box, the ironed linen napkins, the polished silver menorah. At my grandparents' house I felt Jewish, part of a long, formal tradition.
After dinner I got up to help my mother's mother serve the cake for dessert, but she guided my hands away from the plates I reached for and said, "You don't know anything, do you, about keeping kosher? It's a shame, that's what it is." I helped put out the right dishes, and then sat at the table, humble and admonished, eating my cake and spinning my dreidel around the crumbs left on my plate. When my grandfather walked us out to the car to say goodbye, he slipped into my hand some gold chocolate coins, Hanukah gelt for the ride home.
The next year, Christmas fell far from Hanukah, and my brother and I were alone, privileged, orphaned. Maybe my mother was at the movies. Maybe my father drove into his office to catch up on paperwork. Maybe my sister was in her room with a book. I was 12 now and the particular isolation of the holidays didn't feel much different to me from the daily isolation of early adolescence. I was relieved to be left to sulk in solitude. My brother, five years younger than I was, seemed more hurt by our condition. "Let's make a Hanukah bush," I said, thinking of all our neighbors with their brightly lit Christmas trees. I was pretty sure my grandparents would shudder at the idea, but I wanted to cheer up my little brother on a morning all his friends were opening pres-ents. We popped huge bowls of popcorn, and I got out the needle and thread. I put my mother's Glen Campbell album on the stereo, and while we threaded our popcorn, my 7-year-old brother, for once amazingly patient, listened to the song about the Wich-ita lineman. And, suddenly, the holidays weren't about being Jewish or Christian or reaching for the wrong dessert plates. Instead, they were about spending the better part of a morning creating a new ritual, one that began, as rituals nearly always do, with the simple hope for human connection. In the years after, as the Hanukah bush became a family custom, my brother would refer to this as "The Year You Saved the Holidays."
I didn't know then that one day I'd have my own children who would approach the holidays with their own nervous hopes for connection. My husband is not Jewish, and our house is more Reform than my parents' once was, but when my son came home from kindergarten telling me not to forget about the little baby Jesus this Christmas, I rushed my kids off to a temple as quickly as my grandmother whisked each course off the table. Still, my children believe in Santa Claus, too. There seems to me everything festive and nothing religious about a happy fat man in a red suit. Perhaps living in California, as we do now, makes us feel as if we could get away with everything.
Our Hanukah bush began as a ficus tree, bent over from the weight of my husband's ornaments and strings of popcorn. Gradually, it's become an actual tree that we bring home each December. We pull out the same ornaments every year. And on all eight nights of Hanukah, we sing the blessing when we light the candles, loud and off-key. We are not a musical family. We fill the house with friends my children think of as extended family. The kitchen stove is thick with greasy latkes. My grandmother's recipe.
Suzanne Greenberg teaches creative writing at California State University, Long Beach.