What’s it like to be a Jewish child at Christmas time?

Posted 12/19/19

by Stacia Friedman I recently overheard a group of women complain about the multicultural approach to the holidays. "It's not PC to wish anyone 'Merry Christmas' anymore," one groaned. "You've got to …

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What’s it like to be a Jewish child at Christmas time?


by Stacia Friedman

I recently overheard a group of women complain about the multicultural approach to the holidays. "It's not PC to wish anyone 'Merry Christmas' anymore," one groaned. "You've got to say 'Happy Holiday.'"

"I don't get it," said another. "I don't care if someone wishes me a happy Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. Why do they care what I say to them?"

How soon we forget. When I attended Penn Wynne Elementary School in Wynnewood, we had a Christmas Program every year in which a student's mother, who was a dead ringer for Grace Kelly—blond French twist and all—sang "O, Holy Night" backed up by a children's choir and a nativity scene.

I was one of the Jewish kids instructed by parents to hum through problematic words like "Jesus," "Christ" and "King of Kings." In art class, we glued cotton balls to red construction

paper to create Santa's beard. Teachers distributed candy canes. There wasn't a menorah in sight. At Ardmore Junior High, the Jesus Factor increased. We had to attend chapel once a week, where the entire student body was led in "Onward Christian soldiers" by our bald Jewish music teacher Mr. Schwartz. I never knew if it was to rebel against the enforced religious hymns or to keep us kids from falling asleep, but Schwartz routinely stopped us in the middle of a song.

"Seventh graders," he would yell, "I can't HEAR you!" We'd start again and Schwartz would wave his hands in the air once more.

"Ninth grade, you can do better than that!"

By the end, Schwartz had hundreds of us teenagers on our feet, screaming our lungs out, as if it were homecoming and our team had just scored the winning touchdown. Hoarse and exhausted, we'd collapse into our hard wooden seats as the principal delivered a sermon of sorts. I can't remember what he said because, by then, we were also temporarily deaf.

At the time, we were the only Jewish family on our street. Our dark house was surrounded by homes that twinkled merrily. My best friend Carol invited me over to see her wondrous, aromatic Christmas tree, train set and mountain of presents. I was too young to fully grasp what it meant to be Jewish. I only knew that my God kept an oil lamp burning for seven days. Big deal. Carol's God delivered Schwinn bikes and Miss America dolls!

It was a confusing time. I was taken to a Gimbel’s to sit on Santa Claus' lap, tell him what I wanted and have my picture taken. Somehow, Santa was nondenominational. Sensitive to my deprivation, my parents did their best to compensate. We didn't have a tree.

We had something better: a twofoot tall, electric, plastic Santa advertising Whitman's Chocolates borrowed from the display case of my grandparent's pharmacy. Each year, the electric Santa was brought out from its hiding place on Christmas morning and plugged into a wall socket. After my sister and I opened our not quite- Christmas-gifts, it was quickly put away.

My poor parents. Somehow I had convinced them, with all the subtlety of a teamster's strike, to give me a gift every night of Hanukkah and to bring out the big guns—ice skates, basketballs and bride dolls—on Christmas morning. The only caveat was that the neighbors "shouldn't know."

The other perplexing tradition was the annual Bell Telephone television broadcast of marionettes performing "The Night Before Christmas" and "The Nativity." What kid doesn't love a puppet show? I sat, mesmerized, on the living room floor, as close to our RCA TV as my mother would allow. Like most kids my age, I knew "The Night Before Christmas" by heart, but I didn't know what to make of the sadeyed marionette "heavy with child" riding a donkey on a snowy night.

Around the time that I figured out that flying reindeer were as unlikely as snowfall in Bethlehem, the electric Santa vanished. I still got gifts, wrapped in blue and white Hanukkah paper, and on Christmas Day, we embraced the national Jewish tradition of going to a movie and a Chinese restaurant. To this day, when I hear "Jingle Bells," I can smell the hot and sour soup.

These days, public schools steer clear of religious expression and honor diversity. Nativity scenes have been all but banished from public spaces. For every Christmas tree in an office lobby, there's a giant menorah. Television newscasters are careful to talk about "holiday" shopping and leave the "C" word out.

So, ladies, rather than wringing your hands over what has been lost, celebrate what has been gained. You can still wear sweaters embroidered with jolly elves, bake tins of butter cookies in the shape of trees and light up your homes with miles and miles of colorful, blinking lights. (I love the displays!) It's your religious holiday, not mine. Although, I'd give anything to still have my electric Santa.

Stacia Friedman is a Mt. Airy author and freelance writer who has contributed to many local and national publications.