As soon as Thanksgiving heaved its final turkey-filled breath, and the leafless trees were primed for snow, Christmas burst forth in my childhood home. The kitchen smelled of warm sugar cookies. Dozens of holiday cards appeared, almost spontaneously, taking up every spare inch of space that wasn’t already occupied by a white poinsettia. We hung stockings that my aunt knitted, complete with soft Santa Claus beards and large bells at each toe. My sister and I made peanut butter sandwiches (my father’s favorite), and left them out for Santa — at least while we were still young enough to believe that the gifts signed in “his” squiggly handwriting were really from him. (This was fun, until my father received a present from Mrs. Claus and my sister became convinced that the two of them were having an affair).
We listened to Elvis Presley holiday songs. And we decorated the tree — not with matching baubles and perfectly placed lights, but with homemade oddities and hand-me-down ornaments, leaving the tree looking like a 5-year-old who just learned how to dress herself. The finishing touch was my favorite: a star that I made in the Second Church Nursery School, out of Popsicle sticks, yellow paint and glitter. This was no ordinary star; it was a Star of David. And each year, it hung smack in the middle of our Christmas tree, like a beacon from my family’s past — a very Jewish past.
I grew up celebrating Hanukkah, going to synagogue and observing the High Holy Days. My sister and I had bat mitzvahs (instead of going to Hebrew school, I was tutored by a trio of Brandeis University students — Ariel, Ari and Avi). If you were to ask us our religion, we’d both say Jewish — Reform, with strong influences from ethical culture. But my family celebrates Christmas partly because my father grew up Protestant (he converted to Judaism after he married my mother), and mostly because it has been passed down, generation after generation, through the Jewish side of my family.
Christmas has been a tradition on my mother’s side dating back at least to the childhood of my great-grandmother and probably even further. She gathered with her siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles to share in the joys of the holiday, just as my own mother did growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, opening presents under the tree and then dining with extended family in New York City. My mother’s parents encouraged her to unselfconsciously revel in the magic of Christmas. And she was not alone: Nearly all her friends in the predominantly Jewish section of Scarsdale, N.Y., the quintessential suburban enclave of education and upward mobility in which she lived, celebrated Christmas in the same bounteous way. These customs were then passed down to me.