There are times when living 3,000 miles away from my family is tough. Christmas, however, isn't one of those times. Not for the reasons you might expect—I get along great with my siblings, and though my folks can drive me nuts when I'm not living my life according to their grand plan, family get-togethers are something I look forward to. Most years, I try to get back for Thanksgiving. But come Christmas, I want to celebrate—and that usually means staying far from home.
When I was growing up in New York, Christmas was off-limits. Although we were typical Reform Jews—going to temple twice a year on the High Holy Days and observing a couple other, largely food-oriented, holidays—my parents were adamant: Christmas was for Christians. I knew some Jewish families who celebrated it, but my folks wouldn't budge. (To be fair, they did let me and my three siblings hang stockings and put out milk and cookies for Santa rather than try to explain why St. Nick skips the homes of Jewish children. This ended when the youngest child was old enough to realize that Barbie's Dream House came from Big Top, not the North Pole; I was 6 at that point, my eldest brother was 16.)
It wasn't the presents that appealed to me—we got those on Hanukkah. But Hanukkah, at least at my house, was lighting the menorah, saying a blessing, and getting a present. There might be a little dreidel spinning, and maybe some Hanukkah gelt got eaten, but as far as festivities went, that was it. No twinkly lights, no reindeer on the roof, no trimming a 7-foot tree on Christmas Eve while drinking eggnog and singing carols (OK, so my notion of Christmas came mostly from Meet Me in St. Louis, but what did a Jewish girl from Long Island know?). If Hanukkah is the Jews' Christmas, it's the poor Jews' Christmas.
I tried to make up for it. I glued pine needles on a stick and pilfered pocketfuls of tinsel from the tree at the Great Neck Bubble, where I took tennis lessons. It was closer to 7 inches than 7 feet, but it was something.
My first "real" tree was at college—and it wasn't exactly real. It was a 3-foot artificial tree, with all the trimmings, that my roommate (also Jewish) and I bought for $20 from IKEA. We spiked a carton of eggnog and spent hours stringing popcorn, which was promptly eaten off the tree by some stoned buddies. Divvying stuff up after graduation, neither of us had the guts to take the tree; we were both afraid our folks would see it.
Then, a few years ago, something happened to end my Christmas envy forever. I met a man. A non-Jewish man, or shagitz, as my gram would say. Finally, I had an excuse to go all out.
Our second year as a couple, I surprised him with a 6-foot blue spruce I'd scored for $25 (a broke Jewish girl getting her first serious tree stirs sympathy at tree lots, apparently). It was a beaut—and a bitch to get up to his fourth floor apartment on First Hill. But when he entered his tiny studio and discovered this magnificent specimen, it was worth it. He was awestruck and said it was the best tree he'd had since leaving home. And I, his Jewish girlfriend, a Christmas tree novice, had procured it. It was a proud moment.
The magic was somewhat dampened when we realized how much more time and money we now had to invest. We didn't have decorations or even a stand. We bought cheap lights and as many ornaments as we could afford—I made two little snowmen at a paint-your-own-pottery store—and did some serious stringing (though this time I learned my lesson and used less-appetizing cranberries). We could only trim three-quarters of the tree, but when it was shoved in the corner, you couldn't tell. That was a banner year: We even had all our presents stacked under the tree early so we could spend the week before Christmas admiring them. (The next year we got lazy, though, and had the tiniest, sickliest, sparsest Charlie Brown tree I'd ever seen.)
I did finally get my Meet Me in St. Louis Christmas. Last year, my boyfriend (now husband) and I flew to upstate New York to spend the holiday with his family. Since our flight didn't get in till Christmas Eve, we missed their traditional morning sleigh ride through snow-covered woods to pick out, and chop down, a massive tree (I kid you not). When we arrived at his mom's farm near midnight, the tree trimming was well under way, and everyone was scattered through the house wrapping presents and stuffing stockings. By early morning, the pile under the tree was 3 feet high. And there was one special gift that I got to open early. My husband's 12-year-old brother proudly offered me a pair of cardboard glasses like you wear at 3-D movies. He instructed me to put them on and look at the tree—and suddenly the twinkling Christmas lights were Stars of David. Now here was a Christmas tree even my parents would approve of.