Everybody knows I’m Jewish. But. I grew up being the only Jew in a world of Christians. My teenage years were mostly in New England, in Southeast Massachusetts where people really do trace their family lineages back to the Mayflower, the ship that landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. I have been to Plymouth Rock and it is a disappointment. All this hubbub about Plymouth Rock This and Plymouth Rock That, and all it is is a medium size boulder sticking out of the sand, with no distinguishing features save a bronze plaque:The Pilgrims Landed Here. No mention of the Indians, turkeys, Indian corn, nothing.
With the exception of my parents, I had no other Jews to celebrate Jewish holidays with; and since my parents themselves did not have much exposure to Judaism, we bumbled through the two Jewish holidays we knew about (Hanukah and Passover) by rote: did the things we knew to do, ate the foods we knew to eat, but otherwise did not have any particular understanding of the significance of the festivals. Since it was only the three of us, none of it lasted very long.
We moved to New England when I was twelve. The other children were quick to let me know that “their ancestors got off the Mayflower,” meaning, “and you will never belong here or be one of us.”‘
On the other hand, since I had never belonged anywhere anyway, being from another planet etc., I got used to it and poked around to find families that would tolerate me crashing their Christmas traditions.
With the exception of Old England, I doubt there is any place on earth that takes Christmas so seriously as New England. By “seriously,” I mean Serious Fun. In those days you could count on two or three feet of snow on the ground and often more coming down, the night turned blue by the refraction of the snow so that the fields looked like vast undulating blue bosoms.
Over these blue bosoms we would tramp on Christmas Eve, freezing in galoshes, boiled-wool pea coats, and hand-knitted hats, gloves, and mittens, the latter so caked with snow from snowball fights that the wet wool threatened frostbitten fingers.
On arrival to our destination we would stand outside the two or three hundred year old clapboarded or shake-shingled house and sing our hearts out: the standards, O Holy Night, O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy To The World, like that. The family would come to the door , backlit from the roaring Yule log in the great open fireplace. After grinning through our performance, they would invite us in to warm up around the fire. Mittens came off and steamed on the hearth while we were immersed in great mugs of hot chocolate floating with marshmallows. The cookies went ’round, inquiries made after the health of Aunt Bessie, and after we were warm, dry, and refreshed, we said our “thank-you’s” and “Merry Christmases” and set off across the fields to our next destination.
Most families did not put up their tree until Christmas Eve, unlike the current trend that used to begin with after Thanksgiving and now seems to be encroaching on Halloween. The suspense leading up to that joyous hour when the big Balsam fir (no one used anything else, for the Balsam’s delicious fragrance permeates the house and no potpourri is needed) was hauled upright in the bay window. There really is no better place for a Christmas tree than a bay window, because there’s plenty of room to move all around the tree to decorate, and the window seats make great places to sit while opening presents. And of course, anyone happening by gets a spectacular view of the tree!
I don’t know about today’s decorations, but in those days there were two kinds: home-made, and heirlooms. The home-made kind ranged from little felt Santas, elves, and angels made by first-graders, to paper chains made by us, to popcorn-and-cranberry swags that we made on the spot with a felting needle and a lot of popcorn and fresh cranberries (being New England, where cranberries come from, and all), to gingerbread cookies made of a special recipe that hardens and you wouldn’t want to really eat them but they look great, and of course the candy canes, which we did eat.
Then the box of heirloom decorations was opened, and a hush fell on the room, succeeded by excited exclamations as each precious piece was unveiled from its tissue wrapping, where it had slept, dormant, since last Christmas.
The Star, of course, came out first. New England Stars are often made of hand-crafted tin with whirly things and tinkly things. Some of them are lanterns that you put a candle in, if your ceiling is high enough. Getting it on the tip of the tree involved ladders and gymnastics and usually brothers.
The icicles were of drawn crystal. Real crystal, that danced with light.
The balls included clear ones with snow scenes inside, and ones with red-cheeked Santa faces hand-painted on, and each one had its own story: who it had belonged to, to whom it had been passed down to, and how it came to be in this box. There was a reverence to hanging each and every memory, connecting generations, on the fragrant branches.
Nothing was done without a rich egg nog, or a wassail, to cheer along the festivities; and the cookies that were meant for eating came out. Every year someone made pfefferneuse, those abominable pepper cookies that look deceptively delicious, but taste so evil that one is forced to seek out a discreet trash can to spit them out. Likewise the obligatory fruit cake, made at least a year ago and packed away soaking in rum. Does anybody really like fruitcake? Please. I want to know. And please send me your address.
In my experience, fruitcakes are a great gift to receive, because you can pack them up in a different tin and give them right straight to somebody else–just make sure you don’t give it back to the person who made it–which can be a little tricky in a small town like ours.
Now. New England Brown Bread. THAT is a horse of a different color. Who has had it? It is a moist, molasses-filled cake spiced with cloves and cinnamon, bristling with raisins, baked inside a number-something (I forget, but I think it might be twelve) tin can, in a water bath. That makes it officially a pudding, I think, according to English culinary nomenclature, but in New England we just call it Brown Bread, and it is the most delicious thing of all, especially eaten warm, splashed with brandy and dolloped with vanilla ice cream or heavy whipped cream (not the kind in a can), or both. And it is BROWN. Whenever I have been the lucky recipient of a can of Brown Bread I have never recycled it like I do the fruit cakes, but hoarded it until I could enjoy it properly.
Roll forward many years, and I am in Seattle. How I got there is another story, but let’s just say I was alone, without family or friends. I was exploring my Jewish roots at the time, and bit by bit learning the how’s and why’s, but really between the worlds, and terribly lonely and depressed.
As everybody knows, the holidays can turn a normal everyday depression into a catastrophic one, so I did some advance planning and came up with a solution: rather than stay home and entertain myself by running movies in my head about the brilliant and elegant ways I would off myself, I would go to the mission food kitchen and take my mind off my troubles by running my ass off serving meals to people who didn’t have the luxury of a home in which to sit and contemplate suicide.
I showed up on Christmas morning. Even though dinner wasn’t to be served till noon, the dining room was packed with people holding down their seats, eagerly awaiting one of the few real meals they would get this year. It was cold outside, too, and of course raining, being Seattle, so they got to wait in a warm, dry place. My heart opened to all these souls: there but for the grace of God go I.
Tables were set, the dinner gong “went” at noon, and we waiters began to scurry with heavy plates steaming full of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, canned yams, canned green beans, cranberry sauce….there was a bit of confusion when some of the guests decided to “help” with the table-waiting in order to procure seconds for themselves….an announcement was made that seconds would be available after everybody had “firsts,” providing we didn’t run out of food. Everyone sat down again.
A sudden wave of panic broke out in the kitchen: the cook had fallen ill–now what to do? I mentioned that I had been a chef some years back, and was instantly drafted and in fact, shoved physically into the huge stainless steel institutional kitchen.
To tell you the truth, it wasn’t a difficult job to fall into, since much of the food was already prepared and just needed to be heated up. But there was a herd of turkeys sizzling in gigantic ovens, and pots of mashed potatoes that I needed a ladder to even see into, and such pans of dressing, that needed two people to hoist out of their oven compartments! And oceans of gravy hot enough to scald to death the unfortunate who fell into the gargantuan pots.
I was very fortunate to have a small army of kitchen assistants who knew what they were doing, so all I had to do was ask questions and do what they said. In two sweat-drenched hours we fed well over 400 souls.
I helped to serve the pumpkin pie, since by that time there was no further chef-ing to be done. I could barely make it from one diner to another, due to the fervent hand-squeezings and embraces and blessings from people I would not have previously thought of getting that close to, but somehow, and I think you’ll understand, a blessing from someone who lives in the cold, wet, filthy, dangerous, hungry world of the streets is worth more than a blessing from the Pope. It is a blessing from a fallen angel.
That Christmas, I felt that (even though I am not a Christian in the conventional sense) if someone had asked Baby Jesus what he wanted for Christmas, he would have said: Take care of the poor, the destitute, the hungry, the sick, the outcast, the prostituted. This is what I want for my birthday….for Christmas!