When my older sister was eight, she was so consumed with envy for the gentile kids in her Grade 3 class who got to celebrate Christmas that my parents, in a moment of weakness, decided to buy her a Christmas present.
The present appeared on the morning of Dec. 25, on the coffee table in our basement rec room, in front of the fireplace. It sat there, a solitary oblong box wrapped in red and green reindeer paper, with no accompanying card or other ID, a gift that dared to be known by context alone. My sister was beside herself with joy. I was six, and even then, it left me cold.
To be a non-Orthodox Jew in the western world is to be intimately acquainted with Christmas envy as practiced by the Chosen People, either as a sufferer or witness. I was a witness. Besides my sister, I saw it in certain friends of mine who actually enjoyed sitting on Santa’s lap, and eventually on the faces of my own children when my wife and I took them to the mall to sit on Santa’s lap, too (a creepy tradition for any child, it always struck me, let alone a Jewish one).
I heard it in the voices of my wife and her sisters when they talked about looking in the holiday windows at various department stores (Yuletime lure seems to be stronger for Jewish females, for some reason), and how much they loved Christmas movies like White Christmas (directed by a Jew, co-written by a Jew, and co-starring a Jew), and Christmas songs like I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas (written by a Jew).
I heard about it from friends with teenage daughters, who, like weird inversions of Marrano Jews secretly observing Passover in 15th-century Spain, were sneaking into their suburban basements to decorate clandestine Christmas trees. Meanwhile, the only Christmas movie scene I wanted to see didn’t involve a kid named Ralphie putting his eye out with his new air rifle, but a kid named Susan (one of my sisters-in-law) being told, at the age of eight by the kid who lived across the street, that she had killed Christ. “How could I kill him?” she said. “I don’t even know him.”
I didn’t just resist the siren call of Christmas, I enjoyed resisting it. It felt like a righteous act. This was probably due to a defensive haughtiness I’d affected, from an early age toward anyone who had anything I didn’t have or couldn’t get. So if the kid down the block got five bucks for allowance instead of the one dollar I got, that kid was fatally spoiled and doomed to be a shiftless failure, while I was being forged by my Spartan parents into a noble paragon of rock-solid values and infinite promise.
If I lived in humble Toronto instead of titanic New York, I would convince myself that Toronto was actually bigger than New York (this is the gospel truth), based on my observation that the Toronto phone book was actually thicker than the Manhattan phone book, the one that guy on To Tell the Truth could rip in half with his bare hands. (I had forgotten that Manhattan was one borough of five, each of which had a phone book as thick as Toronto’s.)
And if the vast majority of the world enjoyed a juggernaut of a holiday called Christmas, which came equipped with monumental chutzpah and 7,000 replays of The Little Drummer Boy, then I would simply believe that our holiday, Chanukah, was 7,000 times better. How could it not be? Chanukah was about fighting and miracles and Judah the Maccabee pulling cedar trees out of the ground on horseback. Christmas was about one little Jewish kid’s birthday.
But there were things even I couldn’t deny: the cultural power of the man in red, for one. One Pesach, when the time came for the kids to open the front door to let in the invisible prophet Elijah to drink his wine, the door swung wide to reveal my 11-year-old son, wearing a long cotton-batten beard, carrying a staff, and a sheet draped over his head. The seder crowd went wild, but my first thought was, “Hey, he looks like Santa.”
So maybe I will grant Christmas its due. Maybe I will give it that much. But envy of Christmas proportions? Never. My Christmas-sized envy is reserved for larger existential challenges, like, for instance, the two people I spent most of my Chanukahs with while I was growing up, my cousins Jerry and David. Their father, my uncle, ran an ad agency, that counted among its clients the Disney corporation. This meant that at regular intervals, licensed Disney toys would show up at my cousins’ house that hadn’t made their way to the Canadian market yet, some of which hadn’t been released anywhere yet.
Another of my uncle’s clients had a connection with the National Hockey League. One year around Chanukah/Christmas time during the early 1960s (when pro sports teams still travelled by rail), Jerry and David got to take the train with the Montreal Canadiens from Toronto part way to Detroit, where the team was playing the Red Wings that night.(My cousin Jerry claims the train ride was his birthday party, not a Chanukah event, and that I was actually there. He remembers my “brush cut.” He says he has “evidence,” to which I can only reply, “Sure, Jer.”)
My cousins personally met Habs legends Doug Harvey and Dickie Moore, and conspired – unsuccessfully – to steal Jacques Plante’s goalie mask and throw it off the train. But when they told me about all this later, I just smiled and nodded, buoyed by the certain knowledge that their profligate indulgence was already sealing their destinies, that in adulthood while I was making my mark, they would be out on the street, their wills broken by privilege, homeless ne’er-do-wells, lost souls, bums.
They’re both doctors.
Jay Teitel is an award-winning writer and co-inventor of the board game Therapy. He lives in Toronto.