A cure for Christmas envy

Snow-covered decorations at Dyker Heights, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY known for its extravagant displays every Christmas, on December 9, 2017. (iStock)
Snow-covered decorations at Dyker Heights, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY known for its extravagant displays every Christmas, on December 9, 2017. (iStock)

I know exactly where I would buy my tree.

I’ve passed it a million times. Right off of New Bridge Road, where the street snakes around before crossing the river and becoming Hackensack, lies the quaint Revolution-era home and grounds of Steuben House.

I love driving past it at any season. On the banks of the meandering Hackensack River, separated from the road by a grassy field, are a scattering of farm buildings that date from George Washington’s time. After Thanksgiving, a high wooden fence springs up in the farmyard, turning it into an outdoor room stuffed with evergreen trees and red ribbons. On cold, snowy December nights, when it is dark by five o’clock, this lot is lit by zigzagging strings of cheery white string lights, making it look like someone is having a party.

I imagine myself crunching across snow and pine needles, happily inhaling the green woody scent as I walk up and down the lanes of trees, trying to choose the perfect one. (I also imagine myself 20 pounds thinner, 20 years younger, and wearing a cable knit sweater from Ireland.) Which will it be this year? Blue spruce? Douglas fir? Scotch pine?

And that is where this particular fantasy ends.

I’m not buying a Christmas tree any time soon. I’m a Modern Orthodox Jew. In my living room, six Chanukah menorahs are arrayed across the highboy, their flames swaying in the draft. Boxes of candy-colored candles, striped, spotted, and swirled, spill from a bag with a menorah on it. There’s an antique bowl filled with dreidels we’ve collected over the years, and a dreidel battle stadium we’ve recycled from Beyblade. Printouts of “Ma’oz Tzur” lie in a drift on the table. Blue and white tinsel festoons the bookshelves, and a shiny “Happy Chanukah!” banner hangs across the window. I’ve made latkes twice, and I’m not even close to being done. I’ve downed a minimum of one sufganiyah every day, on a personal mission to test each sufganiyah venue in Teaneck.

Of course I love Chanukah. The story of little Israel winning back the Temple, the music that accompanied the brachot, the powerful symbolism of the lights in the night, no question, it was always my favorite time of the year. After lighting candles, singing songs and receiving gifts — in my case, a new pair of footsie pajamas, maybe an Easy-Bake Oven — we would go for a drive through other, less Jewish neighborhoods, where the houses seemed magical, sparkling with a million points of light, plastic Santas glowing beneficently on lawns.

“Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Miracle On 34th Street,” and “Frosty the Snowman” seemed to be on TV 24/7. Santas stood in front of department stores with their Salvation Army collection buckets, clanging their bells and chanting “Ho ho ho.” Commercials focused on gift-giving and happy families. The radio stations changed over to playing Christmas songs that were either high-spirited romps or slow and sentimental — making me nostalgic for a holiday I would never celebrate.

That’s where it began. By the time I moved to New York for college, I was in the kind of full-fledged Christmas Envy mode that only religious Jews can achieve. Strolling on my own through the city, I soaked in all the Christmas spirit New York had to offer. I listened to carols. (In case you’re curious, my favorite is “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”) Blithely, I wished my college friends, store clerks, and strangers on the subway, “Merry Christmas.” I read Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” (Everyone should; it really is that good.) The year I apartment-sat my boss’s loft in Tribeca, I made a turkey on Christmas day, and invited all my friends. (To our credit, we all felt a little uneasy about it.) In those years, lighting the menorah by myself, alone in my apartment didn’t hold a candle to New York’s Christmas spirit.

When we lived in Park Slope, we began a tradition of making an annual trip to Dyker Heights. In this neighborhood, the decorations competition is so fierce, with lawns covered in life-sized animatronic ballerinas and nutcracker soldiers, that today, streets are closed off to cars, and the best way to see it all is from a Manhattan tour bus. But in 2000, you could drive through the neighborhood, following a slow-moving train of other cars.

We took our children, who were small, and my parents, who were visiting from Chicago. When we saw a costumed Elmo collecting money for charity, we pulled over and hopped out for a photo opportunity.

But Dad wouldn’t leave the car, wouldn’t even look outside his window, where a full-sized merry-go-round featuring Santa’s elves riding the carousel animals rotated on someone’s lawn.

While Jon and my mother took the kids to put a dollar in Elmo’s bucket, I stayed in the car with Dad. He looked angry. Which made me angry, in return. After all, he was on vacation, spending time with his beloved grandchildren, driving through a cheerful, gorgeous, sparkling wonderland. What could he possibly be upset about?

“Look, Dad! Isn’t it amazing?” I said enthusiastically, trying to engage him.

“Yeah, it’s Christmas. Big deal,” he muttered. “What’s so amazing about it?” To our left, behind Elmo, a platoon of glowing toy soldiers the height of a grown man patrolled an enormous snow-covered field of six-foot candy cane lawn ornaments. “You know what the goyim did in my town in Poland on Christmas? They had a pogrom because they said we killed their Jesus. The Jews all had to hide in their houses. That’s Christmas.”

I wish I could say that I sat back in my seat, respectful of his memories, so different from mine. But I didn’t. “We’re not in Poland, Dad. We’re in Brooklyn,” I snapped. Moments later, the kids tumbled back into the car, their cheeks pink with the cold, chattering about Elmo. Furious that my father couldn’t just let go and enjoy himself, I didn’t talk to him for the rest of the night.

The next year, we moved to Teaneck. In my neighborhood, there are far more menorahs in the windows than trees. You might even find the occasional gigantic inflatable menorah on someone’s lawn, or images of dancing dreidels projected across the front of a house. The schools throw parties and concerts. There are sufganiyot in every grocery store. Christmas houses are rare treats, as if only one were allowed per block.

Before the great immigration to America, Chanukah was a minor holiday. And before the great immigration to America, my father reminded me, that for Jews, Christmas was a day to fear, not envy. If Dad were still here, I would tell him; he certainly helped put things into perspective for me.

But my Christmas envy was never about the birth of Jesus. It was inspired by the glorious decorations, the bubbly high spirits, the parties, TV’s endless parade of happy children and happy families. The tinsel and lights are a useful distraction from the encroaching early nights and the increasingly bitter cold.

My infatuation with Christmas faded as my children began to bring home menorahs they’d made in class out of nuts and bolts and tiles, and placemats they’d decorated to put under them. They competed for best menorah made from recyclables. They shopped for toys for their friends, involved in Secret Maccabee gift exchanges in class. In shul, they helped to build a 10-foot menorah out of Lego.

Perhaps more than any other Jewish holiday, Chanukah has evolved. In schools and synagogues and JCCs, we celebrate with family and community by lighting candles together, giving gifts, playing games, eating yummy foods from different Jewish national cultures, singing beautiful songs, and using gorgeous ritual objects. But mostly it is this: elevating a time in Jewish history when we fought back against a bigger, stronger enemy — and were rewarded with miracles.

About the Author
Helen Maryles Shankman is an artist and author. Her book, "They Were Like Family to Me," originally published as "In the Land of Armadillos," is a finalist for The Story Prize. Her stories have been published in many fine literary journals, including The Kenyon Review, Jewishfiction.net, Gargoyle, and Cream City Review. She is a columnist at The New Jersey Jewish Standard.
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