Be a Christmas Schnorrer! (Rhymes With Menorah)
Ever since I converted to Judaism nearly a quarter-century ago, friends have asked whether I missed celebrating Christmas. I try to repress the enthusiasm in my reply: "No, actually it's a huge relief."
They look bewildered, and, if Christian, even a little hurt. Then I explain that I'm relieved not because I dislike Christmas, but because I LOVE Christmas. And now I am free to love it in a way that, frankly, only a Jew can.
Over the years my children have pointed out (rather resentfully) that at least I grew up with Christmas. It's true. My mother did Christmas beautifully. Tree, fire, stockings, roast turkey, a satisfying pile of presents for every member of the family, including the dog and budgie. But having grown up with the holiday, I know the dark side too.
First, the whole Inchon-like planning of Christmas invariably falls to the mother. Beginning weeks in advance, the mother coordinates the arrival of relatives, tallies supplies, and masterminds the schedule of events. She must shop and re-shop until she is certain the allotment of presents is "fair." Children possess the gimlet eye of a gangster's moll. They know exactly how much a gift costs and whether their brothers or sisters have received something "better." You may complain all you like about "materialism ruining the spirit of the holiday." It's the mother who knows: Without gift parity there can be no family harmony.
Even after the tree is decorated and the egg nog poured, the mother can't relax. Every few moments she must jump up to check the turkey or prevent the Lab from eating the candy canes on the low-hanging branches. The phone rings with news of sick or late-arriving guests. Plans must be revised; chairs added or removed from the table. Someone is dispatched to the 24-hour 7/11 for tinned cranberry sauce because somehow--can you believe it?--Mom forgot to make cranberry sauce.
All these worries are supposed to be put aside for church service on Christmas Eve or Day. Here--at last!--is the "soul" of the holiday. Or so you hope. Maybe the priest has decided to preach at extra length about global warming. At my family's Anglican church, the minister used to take peculiar pleasure in making us sing unpopular carols, as if avoiding the popular ones were somehow more "improving." The congregation would mumble grumpily through the unfamiliar tunes. The promised "short" Christmas Eve service would last well past midnight. By then, we children would be clawing at my mother's nylons: What if we'd MISSED Santa??
Finally comes the great morning itself. Weeks of work are consumed in about eight minutes. A carnage of gift wrapping glitters across the carpet. The children, ungrateful little beasts, immediately declare they're "bored." The turkey is, like, 72 hours away. Dad is crumpled into the corner of the sofa in an improbable sweater. Mom's exhausted and bleary-eyed from staying up until 1 a.m. to wrap the last presents, fill the stockings, and ensure the turkey was ready to be placed in the oven at 7 a.m. She declares the holiday "started" and reaches for the booze ...
But as a Jew -- ah, as a Jew! -- all of this is unknown. We've completed our major holiday ordeal in the fall. (No one writes cheerful songs about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, whose message can be summed up as: Happy New Year--You Should Be So Lucky.) Hanukkah and its attendant stress have all passed by December 25. Thus for us, the Christmas season is one happy loop of Irving Berlin (Jewish). With the pressure off, you can actually roast chestnuts over an open fire. There's time!
I joke to my Christian friends that I have become a Christmas schnorrer (Yiddish for "moocher"). I sip mulled wine in their living rooms and admire their trees. I ask their children what they expect from Santa. I enjoy the festively decorated malls, which I am not dashing through with lists in triplicate. I hum along to "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" for the hundredth time. At night we drive through the neighborhood to marvel at the lights. Each year we look forward to the "live creche" -- real donkeys! -- at our local Baptist church.
Then, when Christmas Day arrives, we extend our schnorring to my half of the family. Our contribution has been to supply the traditional Jewish feast of take-out Chinese food on Christmas Eve (a tradition my mother has enthusiastically embraced).
When the holiday is over, there's no post-holiday deflation: no brown pine needles to sweep up, no decorations to pack, no lingering sense that it wasn't "done right" or could have been done better.
Let the children moan. For me it's bliss.