Now that my Judaism is firmly lodged in my identity, I feel free to dabble in some secular xmas activity.
This dabbling can be rather taboo: many Jews tend to pooh-pooh xmas. Growing up a minority in a majority world, I was instructed to secretly just mouth the words “Jesus Christ” when they popped up in carols. My people go out to eat Chinese food on xmas eve, or volunteer at the local soup kitchen to give the gentiles their time in church.
And we do have Hanuka. To me, though, this minor winter holiday is a bit inflated, with gifts for seven straight nights. The Festival of Lights certainly does throw a lovely menorah glow in the deep dark heart of winter. And, I admit I enjoy the annual construction of my erector-set hanukiah. But, truthfully, Hanuka feels like only a wannabe xmas.
While we were growing up, my parents, to keep up with the gentile Joneses, went secretly shopping in December. Xmas mornings found our pink kitchen table mysteriously laden with Mr. Potato Head, CandyLand, Chinese Checkers, Etch-A-Sketch, Slinkies, Cootie, Color-by-Number and, once, a dangerous chemistry set. Early on, a Tiny Tears doll appeared in her cellophaned box. A bit later, I received the potentially lethal game Operation, which involved electricity.
I feel that xmas is not necessarily a Christian holiday. It is an American holiday, F.A.O. Schwartz and all. So, oy Tannenbaum, don we now our gay apparel, and let Hashem rest ye merry gentlemen: let nothing ye dismay – easier said than done.
I have always been intrigued by xmas: red berries on green wreaths, scent of pine everywhere, manic shopping energy sizzling in the air, celebration of the infant who is the Savior. And, let’s not forget about the Virgin Mother in her baby blue robes. My old friend Dr. Kay Turner, Mariologist and lead singer of the lesbo-punk band Girls in the Nose, belted out “More Mary, Less Jesus.” Xmas is a fine time for goddess worship.
I have been known to attend xmas eve midnight mass at sites like Mission Dolores. I like to sit way in the back, where my off-key voice cannot be heard, singing xmas carols with great gusto and glee. My favorite snippet is “long lay the world in sin and error pining.”
Last winter, new to my neighborhood, I bundled up and walked alone down to The Church of the Incarnation for the xmas eve service. The polite and tidy Christian family whose pew I happened to sit in wished me – a strange and probably non-Christian non-congregant – a formal happy holiday. I returned the greeting. We shook hands.
When people got up to take communion, I knew enough not to. I respectfully sat in my pew (their pew) and leafed through the hymnal, trying not to wonder if people chewed the holy cracker and what happened when they swallowed it. At the very end of the service, the lights were turned way down low, pretty red candles were lit, and we sang “Silent Night.” Then, without a conclusion or a coffee social, we gently filed out into the lovely silent night. Walking home, I felt uplifted, somehow cleansed.
This year, finally settled in my Real House with a living room, and having picked out of a summertime free box a nice retro red and green metal xmas tree stand, I decided I wanted a xmas tree, my first Tree.
A week before xmas, my best friend and I marched down to the end of the street to the handy seasonal xmas tree lot. We walked in, and immediately, there she was: My Tree.
She was magnificent, a modest 5-foot tree, small and priced accordingly. She was a Noble Fir, her Latin name Abies procera Rehd. She called out to me; her shape was just adorable, and I had to have her. I knew she was The One.
Right away I named her “Merrie,” in honor of merriment, the Virgin Mary and the flamboyant Gothic St. Merri church, built in 1690, in Paris. On my first and so far only visit there, I sat in that ancient shadowy church in the Marais to be thrilled by an avant-garde music and light show. The old saints up in the dusty rafters were intermittently illuminated by flashing high-tech multi-colored lights. The entire experience was, for me, the deep definition of Jazz.
Now, trudging down the sidewalk carrying petite Merrie home, I felt we were true woodspeople. I imagined our hatchet, our red and black plaid woolen winter coats and our hunting caps. I could see our breath in the snowy air, though this is California and the temperature was a balmy 60 degrees.
Home, we centered little Merrie in the tree stand. We even had to saw off a few lower branchlets to make her fit snugly. Using my beginner’s saw made me a woodsman for sure. I felt so outdoorsy.
I started at the top. My sock monkey in its red xmas cap made the perfect star of Bethlehem. Then, I strung tiny red lights around the upper branches, followed by tiny tasteful white lights, until I reached the bottom. There was quite a discussion about how to tuck the lights deep in the tree to create more mystery.
The ornaments included: a dachshund figurine, a Marilyn Monroe with her glittery white skirt being blown perpetually upward by the city wind, a miniature pair of pink child’s shoes, a dreidel, a porcelain-headed doll in cotton underwear, a sailor rubber ducky, a tiny tennis racket complete with ball, a special light-up snowperson, a thumb-sized pink rubber blob-shaped, shapeshifting Barbapapa* (meaning both Daddy’s beard and cotton candy) I bought in Paris, and a yellow plastic spindle adaptor for 45‘s hanging from a paper clip.The only thing missing was a Hello Kitty. The tree looked perfect, customized, festive.
In a subterranean way, my quirky aesthetics were at work here. No tacky tinsel, no blinking lights, no fake snow flocking, no jingle bells and whistles, no nutcrackers, no tacky Santas, no damn Rudolphs, no xmas chazerai: just a few carefully chosen xmas chachkas. And, maybe a candy cane, and a snowflake, and definitely a Virgin Mary. No wise men, but maybe a sheep, and, for sure, a newborn Star to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay.
No swags and garlands. Oh, and no fruitcake, no xmas goose or ham. Eggnog and hot cider, yes. Yes to xmas snickerdoodles. A big Maybe to those sugar cookies with those little silver sparkly balls, called dragées, which are questionably edible. No mistletoe, and absolutely no goyishe poison poinsettias. No Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but lots of Handel’s big bursting Messiah. Forget Bing Crosby, but remember Johnny Mathis, who does the best oral submissive “fall on your knees, o hear the angel voices!”
All through the holiday season, Merrie lit up my living room. I kept her until her blue-green needles dried up and started to fall to the floor. Then I slowly removed her jewelry, put her ornaments in a special box and stored the tree stand in the garage. And, gently, I carried her to the curb. What a Merrie xmas!
*At the risk of giving Too Much Information:
”After various adventures, Barbapapa comes across a female of his species (more shapely, and black-coloured), named Barbamama. They produce seven sons: Barbabravo, a sports fan (red), Barbabright, a scientist (blue), Barbazoo, a nature enthusiast (yellow) and Barbabeau, a painter (black and furry), as well as three daughters: Barbalala, a musician (green), Barbabelle, a beauty queen (purple) and Barbalib, an intellectual (orange).” (https://en.wikipedia.org)
Also, “He is always ready to help. His goodwill is inexhaustible.” (http://www.barbapapa.com/the-barbapa-family-en/)
He is described as “splodgy.” (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/19/barbapapa-at-45-bon-anniversaire-to-much-loved-french-cartoon-cla)