I GET THE BLUES at Christmas like a lot of other people, but I don't need any deep analysis to find the roots of my depression. Somehow the concept of separation of church and state hadn't trickled down yet to Jackson, Mich., when I was raised there in the late 1930s and early 1940s. At any rate, Christmas was a miserable time for a Jewish child in those days, and I still recall the feeling.
The pressure would begin in late November, after the new clothes for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, after the begging on Hallowe'en, after the kosher turkey for Thanksgiving. One day Miss Lukens would strip the bulletin board of its brown and black gobblers and black and white pilgrims with their axes. Stacks of red and green construction paper jammed the supply cabinet, and I knew I was in for it.
Oh, we had Hanukah, of course: great platters of steaming potato pancakes, and dreidels, and all the cousins lining up by age so the uncles could dole out quarters and half dollars and even dollars, maybe, to the older kids, but how could a homely latke complete with mince pie and plum pudding? I can remember the Christmas preparations so clearly and can feel, even now, my Gentile friends bubbling like selter water as the days were ticked off on the advent claendar that hung behind Miss Luken's desk.
On the first school day in December we spread black numbers of The Citizen Patriot, the local newspaper, on our desks.
Whoever was Miss Lukens' current favorite doled out blobs of delicious smelling white paste, scooped from a large jar with wooden tongue depressors or dixie cup spoons.
We smeared the cool, smooth paste on strips of red and green paper, formed strips into rings, then slipped rings into rings until each of us trailed a paper chain onto the floor.
It was on a paper chain day in Miss Lukens' class that I began to have my troubles with Christmas. There I was, threading a green strip through a red ring, when Peggy Lucille Harsch popped a glob of paste into her mouth and whispered, "You killed our Lord." "No, I didn't," I answered automatically. What child admits to anything the first time? But if my enthusiasm wasn't dampened already, that did it. I didn't know what she was talking about, but I was sure she was probably right.
The day passed; clean snow fell on soiled slush, thawed a little and then froze into treacherous ruts. Stores stayed open late and folks grumbled that shopkeepers were starting Christmas earlier than ever. Some night my parents and I walked downtown after dark, snowflakes whirling like moths in the streetlamps' halos and the packed ice hard as diamonds under our feet. In the town square, a creche appeared with a naked baby Jesus stretching out his little wooden arms. Though I didn't know if he was "Our Lord" or not, I suspected he was, and I felt guilty as anything.
Outside the shops, members of the Salvation Army stamped their feet and rang their bells energetically to keep the circulation going. I mistook their red uniforms for Santa Claus outfits and was more confused than ever when my mother dropped a dime into one of the kettles. If we didn't celebrate Christmas, why were we giving money to Santa Claus? Maybe she felt guilty too.
In Kresge's Five and Ten, coat unbuttoned, thighs jumping with the transition from axe-blade cold to down-quilt warmth, I headed for the music department to listen to my ideal, the yellow-bobbed pianist, bang out the arrangements of sheet-music handed to her by prospective customers. Even here I was troubled. How could I grow up to be a piano player at Kresge's if I would have to play carols at Christmas?
Overnight, twinkling decoration sprang up like great jeweled mushrooms: Here a Santa climbed a chimney; there a front door was festooned with greens. I dreaded going home to my house, naked as an angleworm in all that glitter. More than that, I hated going to school where even Miss Lukens had to concede that her students were too keyed up to learn anything that wasn't sugarcoated with Christmas.
One day she announced that we were each to bring in our favorite psalms to write out on the Christmas cards we were making. The stomachache, part of my digestive system by then, intensified. OK, I give up, I told myself. I'll bring in my favorite psalm, but what's a psalm? My mother was no help. "Sahm?" she said in Yiddish. "Sahm is poison." I was ashamed to ask Ruth Mary, my best friend, and though I was already old enough to use a dictionary, hours of research yeilded no "som" or "sam" or any other variant I could think up.
We wrote letters to Santa Claus. What was I to do . . . write to Judah Maccabee? I crossed my fingers and wrote to Santa. Handmade Christmas presents were not a sin, I told myself, making up the rules as I went along. I would pretend they were Hanukah gifts even if we didn't exchange gifts at home. So i sewed pen wipers for my dad and found a snowman in a magazine to decorate the holders for kitchen matches that were the gift for our mothers. The Christmas tree in our classroom grew more beautiful every day, draped with strung popcorn, cranberries and our paper chains. To me, it was like Snow White's fatal apple, more attractive than I could admit, but evil nevertheless.
When Miss Lukens read us the story of Christmas, my confusion was complete. If Jesus was a Jewish baby, like my brother, for instance, then what was all the trouble about? Why couldn't I celebrate his birthday the way my friends did? Still I knew there was a catch somewhere, a piece of the puzzle missing that nobody would help me find. Then Mis Lukens chose me to be class representative in the choral group that was to sing carols outside the door of every classroom in the school.
I went home that afternoon and told my mother I felt sick. She put her lips to my forehead and said, "You have no fever. What's the matter with you?" What was the point of telling her my troubles? The only time she had ever come to school was to register me for kindergarten and then she had answered, "Faygie," when the teacher asked my name so that even now in third grade I was still called Peggy, the closest match my kindergarten teacher had been able to achieve.
The worst of it was I wanted to sing the carols; they were the loviest songs I had ever heard. I took to my bed, hid under the comforter and refused to go to school. No candy scent of cocoa, no image of oatmeal swimming in butter and cream could budge me from my self-imposed exile. My father sat on the edge of the bed in his work clothes, late for the shop, I knew, to give me what comfort he could. By Sunday, my parents were ready to call in Dr. Ludwig, a ceremony usually reserved for the terminally ill. I broke down then, and blurted it all out -- the guilt, the envy, the anger -- and my parents talked to me for hours, gently dealing with one more problem brought on by living outside the Jewish ghetto. In the end, my father softened and told me, "Sing the Christmas songs, but don't say Jesus' name." And I stood outside the classrooms, my voice blending with that of my friends in the glorious old carols, careful always to omit any forbidden words.
Decades later, I still feel left out at Christmas, but I sing the carols anyway. You might recognize me if you ever heard me. I'm the one who sings, "Lah lah, the lah lah is born."