Growing up the only Jewish girl in my desert suburban neighborhood made for a lonely Christmas.
There I was, cruising the empty sidewalks on the roller skates I’d received for Chanukah weeks before, until the magic afternoon hour that came after presents had been opened and relatives dutifully kissed, and exhausted parents let their progeny out the front door to exercise their holiday bragging rights.
After dolefully touring the block to see who got a Cabbage Patch doll and who’d gotten the short shrift with a three-pack of argyle socks, I always ended up at my friend Amy’s for a little Christmas cheer in the form of hot cocoa served in special Santa mugs, even though it was 85 degrees outside. As I skated home with pockets full of sticky candy canes picked off the festooned fir tree that took up half their living room, I always felt like I was getting away with something — though I now understand that no one else was ever going to eat them.
Then, as now, I never minded being different. But I sure didn’t appreciate the schoolyard accusations that I didn’t “believe in” Christmas. I found this ridiculous — whether it was my holiday or not, Christmas was a straight-up fact: six weeks of “Santa, Baby” on repeat at the grocery store. My fifth grade teacher’s electric snowman pin that looked like a sadistic marshmallow with blinking red eyes. The roving packs of carolers dressed in knitted scarves and cargo shorts.
Yet no matter how well I mastered the harmonies of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” I felt forever on the outside of the glittery, tinsel-trimmed majesty of Christmas.
That’s why as a grown-up, I go a little overboard on our own holiday celebrations. No, no Chanukah bush (my bubbe would shake her arthritic finger at me), but there are piles of presents and spinning dreidel tournaments and klezmer tunes on repeat. Our house is the brightest on the block, with the palm tree in the front yard swaddled in twinkly blue lights. We faithfully light at least four menorahs each night, a pitcher of water at the ready as we ratchet up the fire hazard.
Still, the peripatetic nature of the Hebrew calendar means that the eight-day Festival of Lights can fall anywhere from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, so chances are high that we’ve already put away the latke pan and picked the wax out of the carpet by the time Christmas rolls around. (This year Chanukah will be all wrapped up by December 10.)
But here’s a fine thing: I’ve never experienced a lonely Christmas in Savannah. The day may start off quietly (nope, no early morning extravaganza envy, I’d rather sleep!), but we’ve always been blessed with an invitation for an open house (often with Santa mugs!) or better yet, a Tybee oyster roast. My dear neighbors won’t let the day go by without a warm greeting and gift exchange, and some well-meaning soul regularly bestows generosity upon us in the form of a Claxton fruitcake.
The community of greater good revs up to full speed during the holiday season, with so many opportunities to connect to our community. Over the years, we have volunteered through Union Mission and the Second Harvest Food Bank to bring essentials and little luxuries to families in need. Even if Christmas isn’t our holiday, giving at this time brings us into the fold of greater humanity and reminds us that we are all part of something bigger.
By far, my favorite Savannah Yuletide tradition is joining a few of my fellow Congregation Mickve Israel synagogue members on Christmas Eve for our regular babysitting gig at First Presbyterian Church. We meet up and prepare the preschool classrooms with snacks, our non-denominational presence allowing harried young parents to worship in peace without small fingers poking through the pews. (The lovely folks at First Presbyterian return the favor during the Jewish High Holidays every fall.)
I can’t even pretend this is some righteous act of kindness since it brings me so much joy. Sitting around a craft table with a bunch of adorable toddlers dressed up in precious smocking dresses and tiny seersucker suits (the little suede bucks, I could die) is just about the best balm for holiday isolation there is, especially now that my own kids are almost grown. How are you going to feel sorry for yourself when a four-year-old elf with grosgrain ribbons in her pigtails holds up a drawing of what appears to be a two-headed scarecrow vomiting a stack of lopsided tires and asks very seriously, “Do you think Santa will like it?” Obviously, the only answer is, “He is going to love it so much that he’s going to hang it on his fridge for the whole year,” which will be followed by a debate on whether Santa actually needs cooling appliances in the North Pole.
When the parents come to collect their angel babies after the service, the gratitude is mutual. My yiddishe compatriots and I are jolly as we gather errant crayons and trip over Lego pieces, having participated in the true meaning of Christmas without actually celebrating it. That sense of belonging continues the next afternoon when we convene again for the sacred Southern Jewish tradition of Christmas Day lunch at Wang’s II on Waters Avenue, where we smile knowingly to each other over platters of General Tso’s chicken and special broccoli. Four-plus decades of being Jewish on Christmas has surely helped foster a deep awareness (fine, some call it a neurosis) about what it means to belong. It also helped lay the foundation of unshakable belief that every one of us, regardless of our beliefs and backgrounds, deserves the respite, good cheer and compassion of the season, as well as all the cheap candy canes you can eat.
Wishing all those who celebrate a Christmas full of fellowship and grace. I’ll see the rest of y’all at Wang’s.