Christmas was not an important day for me. As a Jewish child, growing up in a small Connecticut town, I was certainly aware of the holiday and of its significance, but early on I knew that it was not my holiday and that my role in this season was that of onlooker. To say that I didn’t envy my friends’ excitement and anticipation every December, or that I didn’t wake up on Dec. 25 feeling somewhat empty and isolated would be untrue. But, like every other Jewish child from that era, I became something of a philosopher at an early age. That was theirs, not mine. It was a bit sad but not tragic. I would enjoy this holiday vicariously, admiring my friends’ trees and lights, and helping them play with their new toys.
At the same time, Hanukkah was not widely celebrated. Where today many parents treat Hanukkah as a Jewish substitute for Christmas, in those days, in poor rural towns, it wasn’t directly compared to its Christian counterpart. It is a minor Jewish celebration, important in its affirmation of freedom of thought and religion, but not the occasion for massive gift-giving modern American parents have made it today.
Still, we took joy in it. We lit candles each night in the menorah on the kitchen table. My grandparents gave us silver dollars, ‘Hanukkah gelt’, the traditional gift. We went to our synagogue for the Hanukkah party, where each child received a gift. Oh, the anticipation, the thrill of waiting to hear your name called, then walking up to receive your wrapped present. It might be paper dolls, a coloring book and crayons, or a toy car. I never questioned the fact that my gift might be small compared to those other children got. As a child, I thought that the synagogue provided the gifts and brought them to the social hall without us seeing. I was happy with whatever gift I received. It was much later that I realized that our parents had brought the gifts without our noticing. That was why the poorer children got smaller gifts. That was why, some years, we didn’t have time to go to the party.
As exciting as Hanukkah was, it was not as glamorous as Christmas, when the world was lighted and decorated and filled with pretty songs. And my non-Jewish friends didn’t seem to know much about Hanukkah. They were only vaguely aware that I had a holiday of my own that month. None of them shared my anticipation, none envied me. If anything they felt a little sorry for me, thought I was a little strange. Christmas, for me, meant 2 weeks’ vacation from school, and that wasn’t bad. It meant being invited upstairs to my friend’s house to play with her new toys. (It also meant knowing that there was no Santa Claus, and feeling grown up in the confidence my friend’s mother placed in me, knowing that I wouldn’t tell her.)
The winter I was eight, I came as close to having Christmas as I ever would, although it was over a week late. It was our first day back at school after the vacation, and someone asked the teacher if we could take turns standing up and telling each other what we’d gotten for Christmas. It was only a week after the holiday and everyone was still excited enough to want to boast about their gifts. The teacher agreed. I remember where I sat in the classroom, the last seat in the first row. The teacher called on a student on the other side of the room.
One by one the students left their seats to stand in the front of the room to recite their lists of Christmas presents of Christmas. I remember where I sat in that classroom. In the last seat in the first row. I have wondered since then if at some point, my teacher realized that one child in the room would have nothing to tell. Perhaps it didn’t occur to her until she called on me.. It was a small, country town we lived in. My teacher knew me well. My mother had, in fact, been her teacher when she was a little girl and she had taught my sister a few years earlier. I wondered if, having given us permission to recite our gift lists, she suddenly realized her mistake and needed time to decide how she would handle it. Or perhaps it wouldn’t occur to her until she actually called my name.
One by one the children left their seats to stand in front of the room and recite their lists. Some had a lot of presents. Some had a few. I listened to them. All of my classmates were proud when they told us what they had found under their tree. I don’t think I knew, until the end, what I was going to do. I would deal with the moment when it arrived.
Finally the teacher called my name ,”Ruthanne?” she said tentatively. I got out of my seat and walked to the front of the room. I looked at my classmates, and then, smiling, I listed everything I could think of that I had ever wanted. I said books, a doll, games, a dollhouse, a doll carriage, a bicycle, and a sled. I even said skis, which was outrageous for a child in the CT River valley in 1938.
My girlfriend from upstairs looked straight at me the whole time. She knew what toys we had in my house and what toys we didn’t have. But she never said a word. She didn’t give me away. She never referred to it later, when we walked home together that day nor in the years following. When I went back to my seat that day I was still smiling at the thought of the lovely, fictitious gifts I had described. It was almost as if I had really received them. Standing there that day, in front of my classmates, talking about them, I did own them. For a moment they were mine, and that moment was enough.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.