Today, I'm going to actually do it. I'm going to finally come out of the closet...
...about my deep and enduring affinity for Christmas. For pure fun and good times value, nothing tops it. Not even Chanukah. There: I said it. I'm sorry, Mom.
But I should also qualify this: What I really mean to say is that I have a deep affinity for Christmas time and all its dazzling splendor, as opposed to the actual commemoration of the holiday itself, whose meaning only begins to make sense to me midway through my fourth Fat Tire. As offensive as this will sound to most devout Christians, it never ceases to amaze - and startle - me to think that a holiday with such religious heft hinges on the assumption that a baby-god was once born of a virgin. And we're not talking about some floozy from around the way who's known for doing everything but. This is Mary - a blessed woman, a veritable saint - not some frizzed-out hood rat from Paramus. And out of all the pristine women of Galilee, somehow she was the one who popped out a kid? That's right out of a John Carpenter movie, and it frightens me.
So there's that.
Also, nothing says CIRCUMCIZED PENISES STAY HOME quite like a midnight mass with an all-boys choir singing "Sweet Little Jesus Boy"
So then what is it about Christmas that seduces a cynical Jewish kid from Upstate New York into purchasing and erecting a Christmas tree in his living room a whole month before the big day? (And no, fence-straddlers, there is no such thing as a "Chanukah Bush," unless...never mind. Too easy and sleazy.) Because, as you can clearly see, the religious significance of one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar has about as much impact on me as Purim has on the Pope.
It's the season of Christmas that takes firm hold of my Star of David and yanks it off my neck with one quick, joyous jerk right around the first of every December - the Christmas season, with its unapologetic collision of unbridled sentimentality and decadent splendor, ceremoniously ushered in with the transformation of prosaic suburban enclaves into Santa's Workshops and wintry wonderlands.
Really, how can anyone with a fully intact human soul remain impervious to the mirth, pageantry, and all-too-tiny window of altruism that permeates the American psyche for no fewer than two weeks each and every year?
Even the most curmudgeonly of cynics must concede that the season's aura and energy inches us closer together, albeit temporarily, narrowing yawning divides between strangers and adversaries.
Go ahead - ask yourself:
Who's not going to hold the door for a mall elf?
Aren't you more likely to reconcile with an estranged co-worker during an office Christmas party, as opposed to an office birthday party?
Aren't you just a little less likely to come unhinged at the DirecTV customer support rep. after being placed on hold to "Silent Night" as opposed to Kenny G's rage-inducing "Songbird"?
And, finally, is there or is there not a greater likelihood of you letting that Camry into your lane upon discovery that the driver is wearing reindeer antlers?
For pure fun and good feelins' value, Christmastime is a perfect 10. Chanukah cannot hope to compete with the season's unstoppable colassus of warmth and happiness. Extract and isolate the secular aspects of Christmas day itself from the rest of the season's festivities, and it would alone remain an amazing, splendid magical force. Especially for children.
But like countless other little Jewish kids, I was an outsider looking in at a mystical realm of joy, happiness, and abundance. The lights were luminescent, the trees gorgeous, and the songs sung in English. I sought refuge not in the lighted menorahs or the harmonic redundancy of "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel" and "Chanukah, Oh Chanukah," (Why must all Chanukah songs possess insufferably repetitive lyrics, my kid brain often wondered. Do they think I'll be convinced about the holiday's coolness by chanting the phrase "Festival of Lights" one more goddamn time?) but in the downplaying of the spirit of Christmas. Gentiles wonder how Jews can be so proficient at the arts of denial and bitterness. Easy: We start early.
Santa Claus? Who wants to be around that red, hot, drunk mess? Christmas trees? I guess they're okay - if you hate the environment. An endless panoply of presents? The embodiment of pure, egregious excess, mass consumption, and hyper-materialism. And unless Santa's workshop is in Hunan Province, those stockings just might be laced with something other than care.
And those were just the eight-year-olds talking.
Most Jewish parents find it difficult to comprehend their kids' Christmas envy. They shouldn't. Or perhaps Mom and Dad are also in deep denial:
Sweetie, why would you care about that pile of opulently-wrapped gifts - most of which conceal the newest, hottest toys of the season - beneath that majestic fir tree when you can light candles and say a prayer!
On second thought, you're absolutely right, Mom. I lost my head there for a minute. Now if you'll excuse me while I turn on the TV to watch the menorah lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Plaz - oh, wait...
...What I meant to say is I'm going to turn on the TV so that I can watch the Charlie Brown Chanukah sp - oh, wait...
And so on.
(Though, in retrospect, I do believe that the insipidly cloying tale of Rudolph could've been ramped-up a ton had the red-nosed reindeer instead been the only Jew or Muslim among his colleagues. Call him Reuben or Rachman. Just a thought.)
So for me, the Christmas season was a time of dread and isolation which was only exacerbated by being the lone Jew in Mrs. James' third-grade class.
Nevertheless, I had my suspicions about Mikey Stoneman - more commonly known back then as Messy Mikey, for the spillage of sticky matter that perpetually encompassed the area around his desk and for the permanent fudge ring that enveloped his slobbery mouth - who attempted to cast a subtle profile while partaking in all our class's Christmas festivities: Hunkered down at his desk in the back row of the classroom, Mikey devoured gingerbread men and candy canes during the class Christmas party, eagerly hung his disgraceful attempt at a hand-crafted Rudolph on the class' synthetic Christmas tree, and participated in the Secret Santa gift exchange. But there was always something amiss with Messy Mikey. First, the obvious: Stoneman. While not possessing the same cultural cache as Levi, Cohen, Abramowicz or Goldstein, for sheer Jewish-ness, you could do much worse than having Stoneman for a surname. Dr. Stoneman, Michael Stoneman, D.D.S., Mike Stoneman, PhD - yeah, it works just fine. To make matters worse, in one instance, I overheard little shiksa cutie-pie Emily Lewis ask Mikey what religion he was (she must've sniffed it out, too), and Messy responded by saying he was Christmas.
Emily: You mean Christian?
Messy: Oh. Yeah. Un-huh.
Emily: But you said Christmas.
Messy: (terrified silence)
That Mikey faked his way through the lyrics to Silent Night during music class was even more damning. And I'm sorry, but for a little Christian kid, that's just unacceptable. Hell, even I knew the lyrics to that one; it was a rare moment in which a nine-year-old boy could belt out the words "young virgin" with passion, conviction and impunity. So, of all the Christmas songs, how could a nice gentile boy who existed to annihilate gingerbread reindeer cookies not know all the lyrics to "Silent Night"? Impossible. Unless, of course, he was...JEWISH!
As Thanksgiving - with its typical absence of fun and presents - passed (From a child's perspective, Thanksgiving existed to venerate gluttony, inertia, and the banishment of everyone under the age of fourteen to an undersized foldout table in the corner of the kitchen, right beside the effusion of steaming Turkey entrails piled high in the trash) and as late-November grinded mercilessly into the holiday season, I inevitably felt that same seismic scar re-opening between my gentile classmates and me. They flooded into class each morning, their anxious eyes growing wilder by the day. They buzzed about their new lush Christmas trees or about well-apointed houses choked in labyrinthian strands of blinky lights. There was much talk about garland and tinsel and stocking stuffers, items that were as familiar to me at that moment of my life as income tax returns and Astroglide.
Mrs. James' Countdown to Santa, a homemade collage of magazine cutout Santa Clause images from back issues of Better Homes and Gardens, superimposed by a Bayer Aspirin calendar, swayed tenuously above the row of cubby holes in the back of the classroom. It just hung there, a garish, mocking reminder of my own personal countdown to jealousy and sullen introspection.
But deep inside, Christmastime was something that I exalted, yearned for, and ultimately envied with the hot intensity that no Jewish holiday could assuage. That's right. I said it. No Jewish holiday.
But what about Passover? you might ask. Well, sure: If thoughts of lamb shanks, Philistine armies, and plagues of locusts fill you with warmth and glee, then maybe it can compete. And, I'll tell you want: You enjoy gnawing on that unleavened bread and brisket; I'll be over here, helping myself to some of this action.
Okay, but what of Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish high holidays - the day of atonement? 'Nuff said.
Rosh Hashanah? The Jewish new year, sans noise makers, champagne, making out with strangers, Dick Clark, and Times Square. The shofar, or ram's horn, serves as our version of a noisemaker, though it takes years to learn how to properly blow into it (ahem...), thus rendering the object utterly useless for celebrants who actually want to, you know, have fun this year. For pseudo-Jews like me, the most gratifying aspect of Rosh Hashanah is the knowledge that the Jewish calendar exceeds that of the Christian's by almost four thousand years. (It's 5770.)
But unlike Messy Mikey, I had no latent desire to trade in my Star of David and yarmulke for a crucifix and communion wafer. I could care less about Christianity. But Christmas was another matter entirely.
In retrospect, I can't honestly recall the exact moment in my life when I finally let myself succumb to the ecstasy of the Christmas season, but I'm sure there was a cute gentile girlfriend or two along the way that helped ease me in that direction (my current fiance being the emphatic coup de grace). And as I grew older, I gradually realized that the joy and gratification of indulging in the holiday spirit far outweighed the white hot acid of Jewish guilt gnawing relentlessly at the frayed edges of my soul. As though that wouldn't have happened anyway.
But is it all a mirage? Is all the feel-good cheer the height of superficiality, or are does it leave a stronger, more enduring impression?
As with all questions that address the human condition, it probably depends.
The effects of Christmas cheer seem to work more as a drug of choice than an indelible cultural mindset. Like good weed, it's a mellow, pleasant, fleeting high that shouldn't be mistaken for our current national attitude toward charity and altruism. And so while the Christmas season has been known to help sew family grievances, increase the flow of money to the needy, and put a temporary halt to fierce and bloody military battles, the depth of its efficaciousness is limited by its ephemeral nature.
Rest assured, when Blu-Tooth Black Beemer Guy cuts me off on Ventura Blvd. doing fifty in late-July, clearing my front fender by mere inches, the spirit of the holiday season will be completely absent in my profanity-laced tirade, obscene gestures, and prayers for his imminent dismemberment.
Christmas cheer will also remain conspicuously dormant from my thoughts and wishes in February, while I wait a few extra moments to hold a door open for a woman at Target, only to have her dash past without any acknowledgement whatsoever.
And in April, when a diminutive blonde woman behind the wheel of a massive SUV lays into her horn as I wait for pedestrians to cross the street before taking my right hand turn, good tidings will go straight to hell as I whip around and flip blondie the angriest, most nauseous middle finger ever erected in the history of humankind. And in case, she misses the gesture, I will no doubt accompany and accentuate it with a merry FUCK...OFF!
To further belabor my point, could you fathom the driver of the Budweiser Clydesdale sleigh in this commercial yelling "Fuck off" upon getting sideswiped by the Coors dogsledding team? No? Exactly. And why not? Because it's fucking Christmas!
Disappointingly, and for whatever reasons, we humans simply haven't evolved to the point where we can collectively behave with unconditional decency and compassion for longer than three consecutive weeks at a time. Think of it as the holiday equivalent of Los Angeles County: Once you exceed its ill-defined boundaries, all bets for rationality, grace, and dignity are off. Drive too far south, and you're in gangland; too far east, and it's gun rack nation; too far west, and you're being devoured by Bull Sharks.
So, just as long as it's understood and accepted that everyone's going to be mean and nasty again come December 26th, we can move on and enjoy our holiday festivities for what they are.
For me, it's enough to supersede the holiday's darker inclinations - our slavishly Pavlovian drive to purchase the newest generation I-phone or X-Box whenever we hear Bing Crosby work his golden pipes, or the overwhelming sense of loneliness that can beset, harass, and plague people who are distanced or estranged from loved ones during a time of such ebullience.
Oh, but the lights!
And the presents!
And the crackling fireplaces, dangling stockings, sugar plums (never seen one, never eaten one, wouldn't know one if it were jammed down my esophagus - but SUGAR PLUMS!), festive caroling, and delusions of peace on earth.
Merry Christmastime, everyone!