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Wednesday, February 10, 2016  |  319 Days Until Christmas
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Stories, Poems and Humor
Left Book Jewish Child on XMas
by Shapiro, Sarah
Right Book

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Group: Hanukkah
Language: English

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For some people, Christmas never keeps its promise. But for me as a child, Christmas never failed. It was always magical, always a mystery, always the one day of the year that could be counted on to bring us together as a family. In other words, it was the one celebration (aside from Passover dinner at Aunt Sophie’s) that my father, Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins, wouldn’t dream of missing.

But whereas Passover was an obligation, Christmas was for him, and therefore for us, nothing but fun and a shimmering joy. And the fact that he could bestow it so guiltlessly upon his children represented, for him, America’s wonderful liberation from his own parents’ Old World ties and Jewish tribal bondage. Come December 24th, no urgent meeting in Washington, no lecture in Des Moines, not even an editorial deadline, could ever have dragged him from our midst in snowy Connecticut.

My father may have yearned for freedom from ritual, but our observance of Christmas had many, and we guarded them zealously, inflexibly. The tree got decorated only on Christmas Eve, not before, and only tiny white lights were allowed, no multi-colored ones. No one could open any present without everyone else looking on, so it took all morning long, opening everything one by one.

Then came the huge family breakfast, the only time all year we did such a thing, to eat breakfast all together, formally, in the dining room - with candles on the table and good linen.

And then, at last, the crowning glory: my father would appear in his annual Santa Claus costume, which as the years went by, became more and more comical and absurd: Santa as an old woman, Santa as gorilla, Santa with little bells and a tin can hanging pitifully from his tail.

He succeeded so well, my father, creating a wonderful Christmas for his family, and for himself, he never guessed that somewhere inside me, something was missing.


At 22, I started advertising to my family that I’d discovered my Jewish identity. I got work teaching English in the most orthodox society I could find - Chasidic Williamsburg - and my first day on the job happened to be Sunday, December 25th.

On the car ride going back to Connecticut a few days before the holiday, there I was in the back seat, my parents in the front, when I made my announcement. I was not going to be joining the family this year for Christmas morning festivities. I had a job. Not only was this a great touch as far as religion was concerned; it was also almost the first time in my life that I was going to earn a penny.

I remember now (with sorrow) how my father gripped the steering wheel and spun his head around. “Sarah!” It was as if he’d been struck. “What do you mean?”

“I got a job teaching English, and it starts on December 25th,” I explained proudly.

“But Sarah, this is a family tradition! We’re always together on this day. You can’t do that!” My mother reached out and put one hand upon his.

“Oh, yes, I can,” I shot back, my voice rising. “Christmas is a Christian holiday, and we’re not Christian. I’m Jewish and so are you!”

“We don’t look upon it as a religious holiday! It has nothing at all to do with religion!” His voice cracked. “For us it’s a national holiday!”


I did go to my first day of work, and all the little girls seemed to enjoy the class, though the principal fired me politely when I showed up the next morning. Evidently some parents had complained that the new English teacher had had their daughters memorize a strange, Gentile-sounding song about someone named Sally, that went:

"I've got a bonnet trimmed in blue
Do you wear it? Yes I do!"

My parents would have joined right in. That song was one of our family traditions, dating back to my mother’s Utah childhood. I’d shared it with my new charges with pleasure, and all their sweet and vivid voices had rung out:

"When do you wear it? When I can
When I go out with my young man!"

Little did I know, coming from a family whose Christmas tree was at that moment standing in all its splendor in our living room, that little girls named Raizie and Feiga and Sara’le, from old Chasidic families in Williamsburg, have never heard of girls called Sally. Nor do they know what’s so great about young men, much less that young ladies “go out” with them.

My shame was great. I had lost Christmas with my father, and the Chasidim in Brooklyn. too. My show of independence had been a sham, and the Jewishness I was claiming as my own was not mine at all.


My own children haven’t had to go through this particular form of confused identity, this divided sense of self...this standing on the outside looking in. The rituals they have come to love are unequivocally their own.

They do not share my persistent sense of loss, whenever December 25th comes around...loss not of the Christian holiday that as a child I once so loved, but of the father who never knew we could have had our own magic, every Friday night. That’s when Jews set apart one day each week to bring parents and children together – no matter what, kids, you can count on it - with special linen on the table, and singing, and candlelight.

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Additional Information

Sarah Shapiro is the author of Growing With My Children: A Jewish Mother’s Diary; Don’t You Know It’s a Perfect World?; the Our Lives anthologies; and most recently "A Gift Passed Along: A Woman Looks at the World Around Her," published recently by Artscroll. She writes regularly for publications in Israel and the United States, and teaches writing workshops in Jerusalem.

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