Friday, December 18, 2009

Tradition, tradition!

Have y’all got exciting holiday plans? I hope so. Feel free to share, to provide a counterpoint to what you’ll read next.

For my family, the holidays have traditionally been a period of puzzlement. What are we going to do? Where are we going to do it? This year we have the added complication of postponing Hanukkah until my sister gets home from college (tomorrow, in fact—close call). When I was little, we went to my aunt’s house for Christmas (her ex-husband is Protestant, so they got in the habit of celebrating); now, we frequently visit family friends up in Westchester who make the most amazing jello salad. It’s true, I assure you. One notable year, we stayed home. But did we give in to stereotypical Jewish Christmas activities? No! We ate Thai food and read books. I feel that my Christmases have been defined a great deal by reading matter, surprise, surprise. A couple years back, I was perplexed to find myself wide awake at 6:30 (you can imagine how happy this made me); I read the entirety of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Another year I read the great British kids’ fantasy story Otto and the Flying Twins. I think I’m going to take a page out of that book, so to speak, and try out Michael Chabon’s Summerland this year.

We are not Christian, obviously, or indeed very religious in any stripe. Apocryphal family stories from our formative years include my sister coming home from kindergarten and inquiring whether Passover was when Jesus passed over the houses; I, at around the same age, am reputed to have informed my mother, “I get that Jesus Christ was a really great man—but the son of God?” In many cases, I admire the sincerely religious, but I don’t think I ever could be one of them. I’ve only sat in temple a handful of times; church a few more maybe (impostor!). I maintain that seeing Chanticleer’s Christmas show at the Met is akin to a religious experience, but I guess I can’t say for certain.

A holiday ritual I have wound up creating for myself involves walking around and seeing what I can see. There are several lovely old churches by my parents’ house; the year I read Disgrace, I strolled through Stuyvesant Square and could hear the sounds of the Christmas service within the church facing the park. Last year, I took a wander over to Dyker Heights, a neighborhood so crazy-Christmas that they run tour buses there. I also walked around Kensington with a friend. We came upon a churchyard full of luminous angels, one of which had toppled; I righted it, prompting my friend to mutter something about fallen angels. We giggled for about half an hour. Now that I've moved, I enjoy exploring my own neighborhood's Christmas plumage, though I remain a bit perplexed by the mechanical glowing reindeer that appear to sort of “eat” the “grass”…

Here is a poem I wrote that Disgrace-ful year. Happy holidays, all!

I wake up early, squint out
my open window at the dawning
of a day you believe. One year, younger,
I laid out socks dangling
from the side of the television
in the living room and slipped
small gifts inside, wanting to bless
our household with a tiny
dose of Christmas morning wonder, curious what
it would be to wake and pad
on woolly feet into a bay-windowed
cookie-spiced Christmas-treed living room,
to shake for a final unknowing time
the gift-wrapped bundles spread out like rafts
on the rug's blue sea, navigating bravely,
beribboned, to shore. Now, I still
don't know. So I walk
the quiet early streets surprised
by blue sky. Joy to the World pipes from
open church doors; I pause
a moment at the threshold before tracing my path
home. After cannibalized Christmas
dinner I'm drawn to the roof, the city sky so clear
you can trace constellations on the night.
Old and steady, yet so often
lost from view. Who knows what stars
will stay the same, what spangled lights
will sprout from next year's window boxes.
Now, I feast my eyes on buildings
and bridges. I raise to them a quiet
palm in thanks, not quite
an act of prayer.


  1. Now your holiday plans involve me! We're probably going to make latkes on Christmas proper...

  2. Mmm, the traditional taste of Christmas!

  3. "Really great man" is perhaps quite generous. I didn't know you associated Christmas with Disgrace--weird combination.

  4. I don't associate every Christmas with it, just the one.

  5. When I was younger, we would always drive around my aunt and uncle's neighborhood on Christmas Eve and try to find the gaudiest light displays (they live in Westchester County, people really like hanging lights there). We had a rating scale that went from "lights" to "lights lights" and eventually up to "lots and lots of lights." But we'd now call such a display an energy catastrophe, and it was more mocking than admiring even then.

  6. Sadly, you know what's in store for me this holiday. Unfinished papers, soul-crushing work, and disappointment all around. But once I was a young lass bundled in faux furs and polished black shoes, and I walked about downtown San Francisco at night with my parents in tow, gazing up at the lights and the tree in Union Square, and sometimes there was a session at the outdoor ice rink, and sometimes there was hot chocolate and gingerbread house-viewing at the Embarcadero Hilton, and sometimes we paused in front of Macy's and Saks Fifth and read all the words of the window displays, which were always re-tellings of the Nutcracker or Hans Christian Andersen stories, elaborate dolls in elaborate costumes, silver and gold and fine filigree.