Growing up I loved and looked forward to the eight nights each December when my family celebrated Hanukkah. We'd light our menorah, fry up latkes, sing songs, play driedle and exchange small gifts.
Sometimes on those same wintry evenings, I'd peek out my bedroom window late at night (or what seemed late at the time) and look out at all the blinking happy lights in the neighborhood. I loved how they looked.
Although I grew up in an area with many Jewish families, we lived in a part of town where few others celebrated Hanukkah.
By the age of seven or so, I began to feel a little sad about our unadorned house. I also worried that everyone would know we were Jewish, which somehow felt wrong or bad in this particular neighborhood, where we were alone in our faith.
Christmas was hard for me as a kid. There were lots of comings and goings in the neighborhood and many parties, none of which we were invited to. And then on Christmas Day, excited kids would gather outside to show off their new bikes, sleds, roller skates and other gifts.
For my family, there was not much going on. We did not have a lot of relatives in the area and there was not much to do since everything was closed for Christmas. And since Hanukkah is not considered a major holiday, our gifts were rather modest. My brothers and I did not join the rush outside to show off our gifts to the neighborhood.
The days and weeks after Christmas, though, the sidewalks became my treasure chest. Discarded trees still covered in silver tinsel (the Christmas tree fashion back in the 70's) crowded the sidewalks as trash day approached each week. There were so many of them. Some of the sidewalk trees even had ornaments still buried in their branches. It was a rare find, but an exciting one. Even if the ornaments I found were chipped or broken, I coveted them.
I love ornaments--things collected and brought out year after year, each ornament bringing memories with it. What a lovely tradition. Even today I admire ornaments in friends' homes and for sale in shops, even though I’ve never bought any and don’t have my own collection.
One year, when I was about eight or nine, I collected tinsel from discarded trees and decorated a small oak tree in our side yard with it. My parents never noticed, or if they did, they never said anything to me nor did they seem to object.
Another time I convinced my twin brother to help me drag a small(ish) discarded tree a couple of blocks to our home. I put it in the middle of the yard, where it stood until the next trash day, when my father and I got rid of it. He understood my desire for a tree, but it made him a little sad that I wished for one.
Now, living here in Roslindale, I'm seeing my early years repeated in a way. We live on a long street with about twenty-five houses on each side. There are just one or two other Jewish families on the block. The street is literally ablaze with Christmas lights from Thanksgiving until well after the New Year.
The lights sure are pretty but not something we share in, and being one of such a few unadorned homes on the block still feels a little strange.
My kids, 12 and 9, have never dragged home tinsel or Christmas trees. Maybe because of tree recycling programs now in place, trees don't sit out as long as they used to, so the temptation isn’t there. Maybe more people have artificial trees and fewer trees being tossed out each year. Maybe Hanukkah has become a bigger gift holiday—nearly equal to Christmas—so they feel more content than I did as a kid just celebrating our holiday.
It still is an awkward time of year for us Jews, “the holidays.” Maybe it is different elsewhere, but here in Roslindale and West Roxbury, it is "Merry Christmas" wherever one goes. There are Christmas signs at checkout counters, Christmas songs on the radio, visits from Santa at area banks and stores, and the words "Merry Christmas," spoken by cashiers, tellers and gas station attendants alike.
I know the “Merry Christmas” I got this morning at the grocery store and later from the lovely man at the computer store were not meant to hurt me. They were unquestionably expressions of warmth, welcome and good cheer.
I try very hard to accept Christmas greetings in this way, but sometimes I just want to shout, "Not everyone celebrates Christmas, you know!"
I’m not suggesting we go as far as the Governor of Rhode Island did when he renamed the annual State House Christmas tree a “Holiday" tree. I know Christmas is Christmas, and a Christmas tree is a Christmas tree, not a “holiday” tree.
But I also know there are people living among us who do not celebrate Christmas. And I for one greatly appreciate when the barista, cashier or whomever says “Happy Holidays” as a more inclusive greeting.
Enjoy your holidays, whatever they may be, and Happy New Year, too.