It was Christmas Eve, 1997, I was on my feet in San Francisco, singing along with the choir, belting out at the top of my raucous voice, "God is in control, God is in control," over and over again until I was a blur in a crowd of surrender. The release helped me to prepare for what would be a grueling trip to England to sort through my mother’s affairs, discard many of her possessions, and uneasily handle her once jazzy outfits still redolent with Chanel.
Next Christmas Eve, we were at Yoshi’s nightclub in Oakland, singing along with the Hawkins Family Reunion. The praisin’ and yellin’ was what I needed that year too, an excuse to let go of months of stored up self-restraint that I had perfected while accompanying Cecilia to radiation and chemo treatments.
There’s nothing out of the ordinary here about participating in a Gospel concert to celebrate the birth of the savior and hope for the best unless, like me, you’re a secular Jew -– a baptized atheist brought up to believe that every mystery has an answer – who to this day considers yoga the closest I’ll ever get to the World of the Spirits.
It’s always been a problem for me what to do with the mother of all holidays. I inherited my ambivalence from my parents, Monty and Eileen, who treated Christmas as an exercise in assimilation and subversion. They were the children of Rumanian and Polish immigrants who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe for the bottom rung of England’s industrial north. By the time I was born in the middle of World War II, my parents were a quarter way up the ladder and climbing. They barely understood their parents’ Yiddish and had absolutely no interest in visits to the old countries in search of their roots. My brother, sister and I – Stephen, Susan and Anthony – were named for going forward, not looking back. Still, as internationalists in a country with a knack for anti-semitism, my parents kept their eyes peeled and taught us a healthy disdain for the icons of nationalism and religion.
My family’s contradictory attitude to Xmas was evident from the start, in language itself. To my godfather Nat, it was “Kratzmach” – Yiddish for “scratch me.” My mother settled on the satiric “Crassmas,” which perfectly captured the innuendos of our invented tradition. If we weren't going to practice the backward, Jewish mumbo jumbo about the miracle of the eight nights, we certainly weren't going to integrate ourselves willy-nilly into the local, prim Protestant version of holy mangers and flag-waving Royals. Our celebration was a hybrid affair.
Some parts of our holiday followed the official British script. Like all the other kids, in December I was taken to a big department store to sit on the lap of a bloated Santa. And when I was older, I'd accompany my brother and sister to the same ritual, and share in knowing glances with the adults. One year, my brother Steve sat on our dad’s lap and cried at the sight of a bizarre-looking, bearded stranger acting so intimately. Steve expressed all the fears and wonder that I'd always felt myself but was afraid to acknowledge. My brother tended to play this role of the emotional safety valve in our household, acting out the instabilities that ran deep below, unseen under the edifice of suburban respectability until, years later, the fault line erupted and the whole nuclear family, with the exception of my mother, scattered to different parts of the globe. My mother scattered in place.
From about the time I was eleven years old, I can remember becoming a detective the week before Christmas, looking for telltale parcels, scouting out the secret hiding places in our large house. It was looking for gifts one year that I discovered my dad's thumbed collection of Henry Miller's Tropics and an unexpurgated, ooh-la-la Parisian edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover buried deep inside his sock drawer. And thus my memories of Christmas and my earliest experiments in masturbation are happily intertwined. I’m surprised that I didn’t develop a foot fetish.
Singing carols ourselves was out of the question – far too Christian and British. My sister Sue was allowed to practice them on the piano at any time of the year but December. Yet we waited, as excited as any dutiful congregation, for the carolers to ring our doorbell as they made the rounds the week before Christmas, grouping at our front door to sing "Good King Wencelas last looked out on the feast of Stephen" – whatever that meant – and "Hoooooly Night." I knew what that meant and shuddered at the words, reminded of the bloody interiors of Catholic churches which were obligatory cultural side-trips during summer vacations in Italy. I was always a little uneasy around the carolers because they looked too much like grateful tenants paying their respects to the lord and lady of the manor. My petit bourgeois, nouveau riche, ex-commie parents, on the other hand, seemed to grow into the role of toffs, graciously dispensing drinks, food, and small gifts, or money if the deferent rabble was collecting for heathen babies in Africa.
We had our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and I called them that. Father Christmas, as the story was told to us and to my children and grandchildren, came down the chimney in the middle of the night after a red-eye ride in his reindeer-pulled sleigh. We had stockings for gifts at the bottom of our beds, and after my dad got rich they were upgraded to pillowcases. And on December 25th there was a feast right out of the Sunday magazine: roast turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffing and all the trimmings, followed by mince pies with clotted cream and a pudding with a flaming brandy sauce that we dug into with gusto hoping to find, and always finding the silver sixpences that had been wrapped in paper and hidden deep inside the steaming delight.
As for gender, we observed a very traditional celebration. Eileen shopped for days, got up early on Christmas day to supervise the cooking of an elaborate meal, served as hostess to visitors who invariably stayed with us during the holidays, and hovered over the table – a tradition inherited from my grandmother – until we staggered from the dining room to the living room, where the adults lay groaning in buttery soft chairs, nibbling on chocolate mints and candied ginger with coffee and liqueurs. Monty, who never learned to do his own shopping or cooking until he lived alone in the 1990s in the wake of his second marriage, performed only one task throughout the banquet, other than presiding: no doubt in order to protect my mother from the potential danger of a sharply honed knife, he roused himself to his feet to carve the bird.
We had it all – carols, turkey, Father Christmas, sleigh bells, pudding, and gifts. All but the tree. My mother used to bring home an artistically painted branch, entwined in holly and silver paper, but it was never attached to a trunk and we certainly never trimmed it. I have no idea where this prohibition in our family came from, especially since the tree is one of the few trappings of the holiday that doesn't resonate with the baby Jesus. Its pre-Christian, priapic provenance should have appealed to my humanist parents, who were hearty enthusiasts of nudism and sensible sex manuals. But it didn’t.
Maybe this was just an arbitrary parental decision to draw the line somewhere. "We were we and they were them," recalls my sister, and reason had nothing to do with it. After all, my dad had no moral qualms buying German machinery for his factory or a German camera for the family snapshots. But he threw a fit when I came back from college with a Volkswagen. And years later he tried to rally the whole dispersed family against my brother who had decided not to circumcise his first son. When I sent my father a serious academic article about the dangers associated with slicing the tip off Tom’s peter without anesthesia, Monty told me to bugger off.
Anyway, whatever the unreason, that's where my parents drew the line. As far as they were concerned, the tree was a Trojan horse, better left outside the walls of our house. And it wasn't just an aberration in my family. When I asked my cousin Cathy if she'd ever had a tree in her household when she was young, her shock reverberated over the phone. "Oh no, no way, that was pure evil, just like Hitler," she replied. "No tree, oh no." Half a lifetime later, she was still trying to walk a very thin line. Reluctantly, she and her husband Geoff bought a tree every year even though, she said, “it’s a bit like putting a crucifix on the wall.” One year, Geoff dressed up in a blow-up Santa costume for his grown-up kids. “That’s OK,” concluded Cathy with all the finesse of a Talmudic scholar, “because it’s showbiz, not religion.”
The Xmas tree was one of those many exceptions to rules that parents expect their kids to figure out, but never question. In our family, Christmas trees and Volkswagens were on the same list as rabbit. Don't expect a rational argument here either. My parents had no problem mixing milk and meat on the same plate, or relishing bacon, shellfish, and pork, or cooking their steaks bloody blue rare. We ate all these things, they told me, because Jewish dietary laws from the Old Testament don't make sense in the Modern Age. But rabbit, oh no! To this day I too get a brief pang of revulsion when I see Cecilia chewing pleasurably on a furry little bunny au vin.
What I learned from this experience is that when it comes to ceremonies and rituals, it's perfectly okay to roll your own and there’s no need to worry about logic or consistency. For many years, our extended family in northern California celebrated the season about two weeks before all the hoopla began. One year we had the kids make elaborate masks and walk through my Catholic in-laws' living room in a candle-lit procession, while Betty read us a Zuni myth. Then we did our annual play, written by Mark the family poet, which involved lightness, darkness, and lots of primeval noises. And for old time's sake, I ran around the house shaking jingle bells, distracting the children while their gifts mysteriously appeared under a huge tree, topped by an angel.