Let me start by saying that I was raised Jewish. We did not have a Christmas tree, Santa Claus never made it to our house, and we had no illusions that Christmas was for us in any way, shape, or form. No tinsel decked our halls, no lights twinkled from our house, and December 25 brought no gifts, unless it happened to fall during Hanukkah that year. Still, I have many warm Christmas memories from my childhood, and they all seem to stem from my dad. Here are a few that stand out.
1. Driving around to look at lights. My father especially enjoyed a pretty light display, and I remember riding around the neighborhood in his car, listening to Christmas music on the radio, and taking in the glow of the multi-colored displays. Nobody had white lights in those days.
2. Shopping at Park Edge. Again, this was a dad thing. He would bring me along to this large grocery store that had items from all over the world and he would pile the cart with treats that wouldn’t enter our house any other time of year. He was born in Germany and especially liked the German cookies. I thought they were disgusting. He would also buy lots of liquor as gifts for his many doctor colleagues. It’s just what they did in those days.
3. The giant gingerbread house. One year my father got the idea that we should have a gingerbread house, so he designed and built one. It was quite large, maybe one foot by two feet by one foot, and decorated with a bunch of those nasty German cookies and some candy. It was beautiful and spent the Christmas season on the coffee table in the living room.
4. The Santa candle holder. This little ceramic candle holder appeared one season as a gift from one of my father’s patients. It was small and cute and 100% Christmas in the way that a holly wreath or evergreen centerpiece wasn’t. I loved it. It was on our kitchen table every night at dinner that season. I don’t think it lasted more than one Christmas.
5. Christmas in Bethlehem. When I was a kid our family, along with my grandmother, took a trip to the Holy Land with a group from our synagogue. On Christmas Eve two kids had B’nai Mitzvot. Everyone in the group attended this event, but my dad and me. We hopped a bus to Bethlehem and entered the small city amidst heavy security (and this was in the 1970’s, I can only imagine what it must be like now). It was magical. There were choirs from all over the world in Manger Square singing to celebrate the birth of Christ. It was peaceful and holy and I’m eternally grateful to my father for letting me experience it, rather than sitting in a hotel ballroom listening to 13 year olds mumble their way through their Torah portions. He took some heat for that move, but he didn’t care. It was Christmas in Israel, and he knew where and how to spend it.