It was pretty mortifying, tripping over the life-size baby Jesus in an extravagant plastic Nativity scene at a Christmas party one year.
And Freud says there are no "accidents."
As I went careening toward a platter of Santa cookies — leaving baby Jesus horribly askew — I was sure I had committed the worst Jewish-date-to-a-Christmas-party faux pas ever. On a good day, I'm not terribly coordinated, but that party had me more off-balance than usual from the second I walked in.
"C'mon in. Grab a Christmas brew," said the hostess, beaming in her red holiday dress. "Christina and I are decorating Christmas tree cookies and cutting out paper snowflakes. Join us!"
I suddenly felt like screaming, "No way! I'm a Jew! A Jew! Two thousand years of pain and suffering and now you want me to drink Christmas brew? Why don't I just take communion?"
In light of the hostess's graciousness, my bitterness seemed a bit misplaced. Especially to my date, who quickly scurried off to fix himself a plate of mini-bacon quiches. I'll admit, I sulked, especially after my unfortunate run-in with the Nativity scene.
But as I sat listening to the piped-in Christmas music, I began to experience the same quiet happiness that creeps into me every Dec. 25. I could not have felt more Jewish.
To me, Christmas is almost like a Jewish holiday, because I am rarely so aware of who I am and how I hold on to that in the face of the ubiquitous Christian trimmings. I love how the streets and restaurants are filled with Jews. We notice each other with the tacit understanding: "Hey, you must be one of the tribe if you're out here eating Chinese food instead of home sipping eggnog by the tree."
One year, I even ran into my rabbi at a movie theater, enjoying his day off in a cozy Bill Cosby sweater. That theater was full of Jews, and as I looked around I felt like I was where I was supposed to be.
Yes, Christmas reminds me that I'm different from most of the people I know, but not in a sad, left-out way, more in a way that underlines the fact that being Jewish is a part of my identity that I like — and I don't mind not having to wait in line at the movie theater, either.
Don't get me wrong. I don't hate Christmas. In fact, I love the lights, the wreaths, the decorated store windows, the whole Dickensian, "Joy have they that make good cheer" feeling. What's not to like? It's just that Christmas is like someone else's very attractive boyfriend. He's nice — but he's not mine.
I recently asked my grandmother to weigh in on the popularity of Chanukah bushes, Chanukah stockings and other newfangled Jewish holiday items on the market this year. Keep in mind, this is a woman who once smacked a Jews for Jesus pamphleteer over the head with her pocketbook. She didn't hit him that hard, but he probably had some explaining to do back in the group's van.
"Chanukah stocking? That's ridiculous. I resent it. It's mimicking Christmas. It has nothing to do with being Jewish," she said.
For once, we agreed. She went on to describe her Orthodox childhood in the Bronx, how the family couldn't afford presents, how all the kids worked to help their ailing parents, how a litany of illnesses and poverty wracked the family. That was when my call-waiting kicked in. I love my grandmother, but I just finished reading "Angela's Ashes" and I wasn't ready for Esther's.
As for Jews with Christmas trees, in my grandmother's words, "That's awful." I have to agree I know it's just a tree, but it is decorated to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
To me, having a tree is like giving in, surrendering to Christmas and toasting it with a mighty gulp of Christmas brew.
I admit that sometimes, I'm secretly jealous of those Christmas-friendly Jews, with their pine-smelling trees drenched in silver tinsel and spotted with shiny ornaments. If Christmas is someone else's boyfriend, having a tree is like sleeping with him, or at least flirting outrageously, and it seems a bit tacky somehow.
I say, look at him from afar. Appreciate his beauty. Just remember, you're going home with the menorah.