It’s Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. With bellies stretched like stuffed turkeys, we climb the attic ladder and carefully carry down one Rubbermaid bin after another. Soon the living room of our modest ranch is overflowing with tinsel, artificial pine needles and a thin layer of glitter that will permeate every piece of furniture and clothing in the weeks to come. With the Chipmunks’ Christmas album playing in the background, I take a minute and wonder how I, a Jewish girl from Newton, have come to so easily embrace the spirit of the season. I have always celebrated Chanukah, and can spin a dreidel with the aplomb of a roulette croupier, yet here I am, garnishing the tree with the same meticulous precision used to set a perfectly symmetrical seder plate.
Back in college, my roommates at UNH wanted to set up a tree in our tiny, poorly-furnished apartment. They asked if I, their token Jewish friend, was OK with some Christmas cheer. I was fine with it, of course, mainly in hopes that the holiday decorating would force my roomies to confront the ever-growing pile of dishes on the counter or clothes hanging askew from every doorknob.
On the day of the big reveal, I had a late cheerleading practice, and as I drove home, I was blinded by the lights from the northeast Bellagio. I parked, ran into the apartment in the attempt to rescue my roommates from what I assumed was a blazing inferno with my Jewish mothering instincts shouting “stop, drop and roll,” only to find that the source of the exorbitant glare radiated from none other than a cheap, angel tree-topper with a 24-inch wing span spewing the most grotesque neon light show since Jordan’s added amusements to its furniture warehouse.
In the days that followed, I isolated myself in my room with shades drawn to protect my corneas. I cursed Santa under my breath as I cleared a small corner for my anemic menorah, which didn’t even have candles since apparently there were none to be found in the state of New Hampshire. When half the campus came to witness the spectacle, my roommates and I got into a shouting match as I tried to rip the monstrosity from the tree. I then bought a $40 brushed-bronze star from Pier 1 in hopes that I could appeal to a greater sense of style and décor. And when I returned the star the following day, I felt defeated as my eyes glanced through tasteful, chic ornaments that I would never have. Finally, I gave up. The angel remained, her wings aglow in all their glory, well past the first week of January.
In the years that followed, I proudly placed my menorah front and center of each transient dwelling. While colleagues at the school I taught in adorned themselves in red and green the day before winter break, I found a fuzzy blue Santa hat and paraded the halls as Moishe, the little-known Chanukah elf, creating new verses to the dreidel song as the day wore on.
On Jan. 2, 2010, a week or so after I had placed Moishe’s hat away for safe-keeping, I entered a local pub and met the man who would become my husband. David was kind and interesting, with eyes the color of sea glass. We went on all sorts of adventures that year, and in December, we braved Logan Airport amid the holiday madness to visit his mother and sister in California.
As soon as we entered the house, the festivities began. I stayed in the peripheral, unsure of my role and not wanting to get in the way of established traditions and inner workings of an Italian mother’s kitchen. I sat, nibbling homemade spritzes and Venetian cookies as delicate ornaments were carefully placed on the tree. The topper was set, and this time, instead of looking like a casino lounge at 4 a.m., the room illuminated a glow reminiscent of the Kinkade paintings that commonly adorn Hallmark cards and popcorn tins, which overflow the aisles of The Christmas Tree Shop.
Over the course of the week, we decorated gingerbread, ate Cornish game hens from Wedgwood, which descended from curio but once a year (and which I prayed wouldn’t break under my inept southpaw handling), and even watched Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” sipping hot cocoa together on the couch. When it came time to exchange gifts, I unwrapped a scarf, hand knit with an intricate blue-and-white pattern that must have taken hours of work. As I held the soft wool against my cheek, I no longer felt like an interloper, but rather a part of this family, which was soon to become my own.
In the year that followed, David and I experienced both our greatest joys and sorrows as we exchanged vows twice—once overlooking the ocean, breaking a glass to seal the union, and once in a hospice, watching my mother-in-law pass from this world as cancer made its rapid progression through her wearied body.
That December, we decorated a tree, complete with encircling train, and lit a menorah that warmed our home. David painstakingly recreated spritz and Venetian cookies from the recipes in his mother’s cookbook, as I, his new wife who didn’t know a whisk from a ladle, burnt the frozen egg rolls from Trader Joe’s. We invited our friends for a holiday celebration, and in a last-minute decision, broke the news that we were expecting our first child that summer.
Over the next few years, our traditions, family and waistlines grew, attributed evenly between pregnancies and David’s baking skills. Last year, as the Chipmunks sang their falsetto “Jingle Bells,” our daughter decided that she wanted to give something to Santa, who was such a mensch for bringing gifts to children near and far. She picked up a menorah that wasn’t being used (since with all the kids’ holiday craft projects we now own one for each night) and started to wrap it. “This way Santa can celebrate Chanukah, too,” she exclaimed. I smiled and nodded, picturing how a Kinkade popcorn tin would look with a menorah in the window.
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