I exchanged emails this week with a musical friend. He’d been practicing for a performance, he told me: “The Jew leads the caroling, of course.” I haven’t actually sung one of them in decades, but I too, know the words and tunes, at least to the traditional Christmas songs of my youth: “Silent Night,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “We Three Kings”—and of course, “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” that anthem of oddball acceptance.
I doubt I have anything truly, deeply new to say on the subject of Christmas for aliens (read last year’s post and judge for yourself; it’s linked to a funny video clip). Instead, I want to pose a question to readers who swim downstream at Christmas, paddling happily along a familiar and beloved current of holiday cheer. Unless you’ve aligned yourself with another religion and determined to learn its songs and customs, is there anything like this is your life? Have you ever absorbed the lore of another religion by osmosis, learning its songs and stories by heart, without even trying?
Almost always, unless one lives in an ethnic enclave embedded in—yet shielded from—the larger community, this mode of learning runs only one way: the immigrant, refugee, or captive learns the ruling culture, while his or her own heritage remains a dark blur to those who shape the dominant society.
Yet I want to say something about Christmas, this Atlantic Ocean of a holiday, which cannot be ignored. All of us must work out some relationship with it: frolicking in the shallows without giving much thought to its deeper meanings; diving headlong into the deeps of frenzied consumption; immersing oneself in the holy water of Christianity’s annual birth-ritual. Or standing on the shore, singing “Hava Nagila,” which is pretty much my stance.
It is precisely Christmas’s 800-pound-gorilla footprint, its central stature in our national life, that can make it so alienating for those who don’t partake. If your own heritage is Christian, try to imagine yourself a month of each year hearing “Happy Spring Festival!” or “Did you have a good Eid ul-Fitr?” or “Joyous Diwali to you!” in every shop or office you enter. Imagine the music of those holidays piped into every building. Imagine walking along almost any street in your town as an opportunity to immerse yourself in the signs, symbols, and decorations associated with someone else’s holiday. That is the sense of dislocation I experience with this annual national festival, in large part because it comes wrapped in a red-and-green presumption that elides our differences and obscures whatever doesn’t fit.
I imagine that Christmas’s ubiquity creates a deliciously oceanic feeling of belonging for those whose heritage rhymes with the holiday. It must be a little like everyone, everywhere, celebrating one’s birthday.
But to the rest of us, it can be a reminder of otherness: you just don’t belong, our common culture announces. You are constantly faced with the choice of whether to acknowledge it or not. When someone at the grocery says, “Merry Christmas,” or “How was your Christmas?” do I smile and say “Fine,” or do I strike a little blow for multiculturalism by saying “Well, actually, I don’t celebrate Christmas.” If I make the first choice, I swallow my otherness for the umpteenth time. If I make the latter choice, I have a different opportunity to feel otherness in facing the look of surprise or incomprehension my words provoke.
I’ve seen family Christmases from the inside (I was twice married to men whose families celebrated the holiday with full-on displays of lights and tinsel and a groaning-board of exotic—to me—foods: eggnog, ribbon candy, casseroles with marshmallows on top.) So I know firsthand that the yearning for family happiness embodied in glimpsing a fireside Christmas eve though a passing window may conceal an altogether different reality. Every therapist I know says the Christmas season marks an upturn in demand.
I also know that the slight depression—the touch of loneliness that sometimes persists through company, the chill despite a room’s warmth—that tends to settle on my shoulders this time of year can be cured by simply ceasing to care, by just letting the season twinkle past. I’ve long since ceased my most masochistic Christmas behavior, indulging a powerful attraction to deeply sentimental seasonal movies: Holiday Inn, It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street. The painful pleasure I used to derive from these was something like sticking the tip of my tongue into a sore place where a tooth used to be. I’m glad I lost my taste for it.
But I’d still like things to be different, not by squelching others’ exuberance, but by promoting equal-opportunity exuberance. I’d be entirely willing to shrug off the fact that I absorbed and memorized a mass of Christmas lore (not just the tunes) while attending a purportedly secular public grade school, if only my fellow Americans would (for instance) learn the names of major Jewish holidays and stop scheduling homecoming games on Yom Kippur. I don’t want to take anything from those who derive pleasure from Christmas, to make them feel that it’s not okay to be who they are. The remedy for an imbalance in public speech is not to restrict some people’s right to expression; it’s to nurture and encourage everyone else in taking advantage of the same right.
Imagine how things could be if we all were to accept the multicultural character of U.S. society, with a universal duty to know each other, however imperfectly or haltingly we begin. I’ve made it a small personal commitment to learn a little about the holidays of other traditions, in the spirit of do unto others. Here’s a calendar of religious holidays that should help. Even learning a major holiday or two each year could start to turn the tide.
The merest sign that my willingness to learn Christmas songs, stories, and customs were reciprocated would make me approach December feeling a bit of Ho! Ho! Ho! instead of Ho-Ho? Oh, No!
Along with countless other Jewish kids, I cared enough to learn all about the star, the manger, the wise men, the songs, and so many other things. If those were your stories and customs, how much do you care to make me feel welcome?
How about meeting me halfway? We’ll have a holiday potluck where all the holidays are equal, and all questions are okay to ask. You make the latkes, since they are traditional for Hanukkah, using the recipe below. I’ll make—let’s see—a Bûche de Noël, or a nice big Pannetone, or a pumpkin cheesecake…. What would you like?
6 medium baking potatoes, scrubbed
1 medium onion, peeled and chunked
2 Tablespoons matzo meal or flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Cooking oil (grapeseed, corn, etc., but not olive)
Grate the potatoes. Some people like distinct shreds; I like them finely grated, and usually do it by pulsing chunks of potato in the food processor until they look like small grains of rice. However you do it, mix them immediately with the baking powder, to help prevent oxidation, and put them in a strainer over a bowl or the sink to drain while you continue with preparation.
Heat oil in a skillet to a depth of half an inch, while you put the onion, eggs, matzo meal or flour, and salt into the food processor, and puree. Press down on the potatoes in the strainer, releasing as much liquid as possible, and combine the onion-egg mixture and potatoes in a bowl, mixing till uniform.
Drop a teaspoonful of this batter into the hot oil. It should bubble up enthusiastically, and the edges should begin to brown quickly. When it is brown on one side, turn this mini-pancake over and brown the other side. Remove from oil and drain on paper. Taste this, and adjust the salt as needed. Once that’s done, you’re ready to roll.
Some people like latkes thick and soft in the middle. I like them thin and crunchy. The difference is a matter of how much batter you use and how long you cook it. If you’re unsure, try it both ways. For a thick latke, gently drop a ladleful of batter into the hot oil and leave it alone until the bottom browns to your satisfaction. Then turn and brown the other side. For a thin one, immediately use a spatula to flatten the latke. Try to only turn them once, so they don’t absorb too much oil.
While they are cooking, watch the temperature, lowering the heat if they start to burn and raising it if the oil isn’t bubbling actively. Use a slotted spoon to remove burnt bits as they accumulate. Replenish the oil between batches, allowing it to heat before adding a new batch of latkes.
Unless people are eating them as soon as they come out of the pan, keep the first latkes warm while the rest cook. Arrange them on a baking sheet covered with absorbent paper (brown grocery bags cut open work well), and slide the baking sheet into a 275 degree oven.
Serve the latkes hot with applesauce and sour cream on the side.
A single recipe should feed six people as part of a meal, fewer if latkes are all that you are eating. If you are making mass quantities for a party, just double or triple the recipe and use two or three skillets simultaneously. Leftovers can be heated the next day in a 300 degree oven. They may be a little bit soggy, but still delicious.
While you cook, listen to this beautiful song by Consuelo Luz, “Los Biblicos,” (“The Nightingales”), sung in Ladino, Sephardic Judeo-Spanish.
Los bilbilicos cantan
Con sospiros de amor
Mi neshama mi ventura
Estan en tu poder
The nightingales sing
With sighs of love
My soul and my fate
Are in your power