The year was 1955 and I was eight years old. Christmas back then was a magical time, even for us Jews. I recall that nearly every school held a Christmas pageant that featured stories, carols and the grand finale — a living Nativity scene with boys and girls dressed as the kings and angels, wise men and shepherds, Joseph, and the star of the show, the Virgin Mary.
My immigrant parents were eager to participate in anything American. From the Fourth of July to Thanksgiving to Christmas, every holiday was yet another opportunity to be as American as turkey, hot dogs and apple pie. And even though we were Jewish, the Christmas holiday was no exception. So that’s how it happened that I was to participate in the annual elementary school Christmas show. I remember how excited our teacher was when she informed us that this would be the year that our class was in charge of the Nativity scene – an extra special honor especially since our teacher’s sister, who was a new mom of a four month old baby boy had agreed to allow the “Virgin Mary” to actually hold the real live baby.
“So to make it fair,” the teacher said, “We’ll have an election to see which third grade girl will be Mary.” Kenahara! I won. I would be Mary and get to hold a real baby. I was in seventh heaven!” But my euphoria was short lived. As I explained my good fortune to my freedom-fighter father, he shook his head and said in an Italian that needs no translation, “Assolutamente NO!”
I was devastated and sputtered to make my case but my father raised his two fingers to his lips (a trait I have as well) to silence my protests. He reminded me of how the Christmas story was special and meaningful to Christians and although Jesus was born, lived and died a Jew, we Jews did not worship him. “It is best, “ Daddy said, “that a girl who believes that Mary is the Holy Mother be the girl to play the Virgin Mary. The part should be awarded to a girl for whom the role holds meaning.”
I was paying no attention to my father. Tears were streaming down my cheeks and my nose was running down my chin as I sobbed, “Daddy, that’ not fair.” My father, who by now was losing patience, handed me his cloth handkerchief and relented (sort of). He said, “If you want to be in the play, you can be a sheep or nothing.”
So that’s how it was that I returned to school the next day and gave up the coveted Mary role to second place winner, Maureen McMurphy. And on the night of the play, this little Jewish girl crouched beside the wooden toolbox that served as the manger. I was dressed in white pajamas wearing a cotton ball bonnet, bleating Baa Baa Baa with a broken heart.
Today 57 years later I have a different impression of the experience. While pundits debate whether there is a “War on Christmas,” I notice that where Christmas is concerned, our country has changed dramatically. This year when Christmas concerts are cancelled (Hawaii, Massachusetts), Christmas movies disallowed (Arkansas), Nativity scenes in the public square banned (California, US Navy base in Bahrain), I note that back in 1955 at my elementary school, the Christmas play went on as planned. My Jewish parents did not call the school and demand that the production be scrapped. Back then there were no PC police to interfere with tradition. In fact my father, who fought the Nazis as a partigiano in the Italian resistance, explained that because we Jews had Chanukah, we Jews also had the responsibility to carry the message that we were the people who fought so that everyone had the freedom to express their own religious beliefs, not just at home but in public as well.
In later years as the forces to eliminate public Christmas festivities strengthened, I am reminded of my father’s practical take on the situation. If he were here today he would continue to remind friends and family that the public representation of the birth of Jesus is no less appropriate than any birthday festivity. He might say that although the “party” known as the American Christmas was not our festival, we Jews could enjoy being guests. Daddy would remind me that just like a birthday party where I was not the birthday girl, I could still participate in and appreciate the joy of someone else’s celebration.
In ancient times we Jews pushed against the destruction of our culture and we won. It is entirely appropriate that we Jews stand with our Christian brothers and sisters, and in the tradition of the Macabbees, we Jews can still do the very same thing.