Inspired by JoHanna Massey’s Many Faces of Santa Clause.
As Madeline Kahn playing Lili Von Shtupp said in the movie Blazing Saddles, it’s twue, it’s twue, it’s twue. But this time I’m talking about Jews going out for Chinese food on Christmas. I remember that from my childhood in Philadelphia. We knew the Chinese restaurants would be open and uncrowded.
This was the 1950s, and that bulky piece of wooden furniture with plastic knobs and a 12-inch screen was beginning to appear in living rooms. The early TV sitcoms taught me what Christmas was supposed to be like in the goyishe (non-Jewish) American households. And then I grew up and took my place in the goyishe culture. I learned to enjoy a lot about Christmas.
One Christmas season in the late 1970s, I invited friends working for the New York Post to a party in my Manhattan apartment. They had gathered a bunch of Dear Santa letters from the post office. We read them out loud and each of us volunteered to take at least one of the letters and grant the writer’s wish.
I took a letter from a 13-year-old boy living in a housing project in the Bronx. He wasn’t concerned about himself, he wrote Santa, but he was worried that his little sisters would be disappointed. He knew the family had no money for gifts and was afraid they’d have no Christmas. I bought a bicycle for the boy as well as the gifts he listed for the girls and showed up Christmas afternoon, explaining that Santa had been delayed. The boy stared with an open mouth and a quizzical look as I delivered the gifts. He never said a word.
In the late 1980s, I spent my Christmas mornings going with the Holiday Project to an adult home in Queens, New York. The adult home, a halfway house to nowhere, was associated with the notorious Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. My friends and I would round up all the children we could find and descend on the adult home with songs, silliness and small wrapped gifts.
One year the gift was a pair of socks, and I supervised the children giving them out. One bent-over, frail old mute woman accepted her gift but then motioned the child back and traded her unopened package for another. I couldn’t figure out why it made a difference — all the gifts were the same. I saw the difference only after the old woman took the ribbon from the gift-wrapping and put it in her hair. The first package had no ribbon, and I learned an important lifelong lesson about what’s important.
When I lived alone in Manhattan, it was sometimes a joy to walk the streets in December and encounter carolers, but other times it was not. After a very dear friend spent the weekend with me in December 1971, she was stabbed to death hours after she left my apartment. After I learned of her death, still stunned, I went to Penn Station to get the train to Philadelphia and join her husband in mourning, but those damn carolers kept singing of joy and peace. I thought I would never enjoy a carol again, and for many years I regularly fell into depression in early December.
This year my wife and I will do our best to avoid our typical Christmas routines. Our older son, Thomas, 29, died six months ago. I’d like to say that he loved Christmas, but if he did he never admitted it. He hated rituals that require one to feel a certain way at a certain time. But on Christmas, out of love and respect for his mother, he restrained his grumbling and went through all the rituals that made her happy, and did so with a smile. So Christmas at home is out of the question for us this year. We’ll be staying with my Jewish relatives…
…and probably going out for Chinese food.
Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine