(Ever wonder what Christmas might be like for people who don’t celebrate Christmas? The Curmudgeon is one of those people, and more than twenty-five years ago he put pen to paper and wrote the follow semi-autobiographical look at what that day is like for people who hang no stockings, eat no sugar cookies (really? sugar cookies? don’t you want something that has some, you know, flavor?), and drink no wassail (because they have no idea what that even is). While The Curmudgeon is normally an incessant tinkerer with his writing, he decided to leave untouched the mistakes he made twenty-five years ago and made only one alteration to this piece; you’ll probably know it when you see it. Finally, if you find that you don’t know the meaning of some of the non-English words, skip down to the bottom, where you’ll find a glossary. And if you think you’ve seen this before – hey, you’re paying attention! It ran in this space two years ago. Happy reading – and Murray Christmas.)
Bowling, movies, and Chinese food, for chrissakes. That’s what they leave us with. It’s like being the lone guy marooned on a deserted island with ten beautiful women and discovering that, well, they don’t really like boys.
Bowling, for crying out loud.
That’s what Christmas means to me, a Jewish boy from the old neighborhood who, as a precocious child of four, couldn’t for the life of me understand why the biggest goyische holiday of them all was named after a Jewish man.
“Bubby,” I would ask, “why did the goyim name their holiday after a Jew?”
“What are you talking?” my Bubby replied, cagily answering my question with a question of her own, as she did whenever she had no idea of what I was talking about, which was often.
“I heard it on TV a few minutes ago,” I said. “‘Murray Christmas, Murray Christmas’ the man said. Why is the fancy goyische holiday named after a Jew named Murray?”
Bubby, who never laughed aloud, fought unsuccessfully to hide a rare grin.
“Yes, my Yussele,” she said, “they named their holiday after a Jew named Murray.”
That was my introduction to a holiday that has haunted me, taunted me, and frequently even been flaunted to me ever since.
“What did you get for Christmas?” the kids would ask when we returned to school in January.
“I didn’t get anything,” I would reply, and they would make fun of me. “Joey got nothing for Christmas, Joey got nothing for Christmas” they would taunt in their high-pitched, singsong voices.
I told Bubby about that, too, and she made that sucking sound with her teeth that she usually saved for when I messed up the schmatah that she threw on top of the plastic slipcovers whenever her grandchildren visited.
“Hush, Yussele, we don’t celebrate Christmas. When they ask you what you got for Christmas, you tell them you got gornischt for Christmas.”
“Did I get some gornischt, Bubby?” I asked, a hopeful smile blooming on my face.
“Yes, Yussele, you got gornischt for Christmas. You should live to be a hundred years old and always get gornischt for Christmas.”
And that’s what I’ve been getting ever since – that and bowling, which I shouldn’t do because of my bad back, the movies, which bore me to tears, and that ever-present goddamned Chinese food. Some people associate Christmas with a hirsute, aging binge-eater with a predilection for gaudy red clothing; others think about spending money they don’t have on things they don’t need, and doing it in department stores – paying retail, of all things; and still others go on endlessly about the smell of pine needles, the sight of tinsel, the sound of carolers. Me, I associate Christmas with wonton soup and moo goo gai pan. Actually, I like Chinese food, but I resent like hell having no choice except Chinese food that one day of the year.
Even those seemingly innocent carols caused problems in our little Jewish-American family as we tried desperately, but ultimately in vain, to avoid succumbing to the influence of the Christmas season. I remember when my little brother came home one day from the first grade, singing something about “Pa rum pum pum pum.” Dad, who had a short temper to begin with, was not happy.
“What’s with this ‘rum pum pum pum’ crap?” he growled at my mother when he knew that my brother had been tucked in for the night.
The next day, Dad was in school at eight o’clock sharp, informing Miss Dubin – Dubin, for pete’s sake, she should have known better – that no son of his was going to sing “rum pum pum pum.” Little brother was removed post haste from the Aloysius J. Fitzpatrick Public Elementary School Christmas pageant.
I’m glad little brother left the choir, because hearing him sing Christmas carols probably would have driven me crazy, and knowing him, once he realized the effect that his singing was having on me, he would have sung them non-stop, all day. Over the years, I have come to loathe those perky, insipid tunes, and I never, ever even hum along with them. I make a special point of staying out of retail establishments after Thanksgiving just to avoid hearing them, and to this day, I can honestly swear on the grave of my late, lamented Bubby that I do not know all of the words to any – any – Christmas songs. It’s hard to prove a negative, I know, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
I grew up in mixed neighborhoods with more gentiles than Jews, and you could usually tell who lived in which house by the decorations in the windows. Jews don’t go much for decorations; we prefer to keep our whereabouts quiet, ever mindful of the Nazi wannabes out there looking to spray paint swastikas on our doors. A few Jewish families would put electric menorahs in their windows – “keeping up with the O’Malleys,” Mom called it – but we knew they weren’t the real Jews. Electric menorahs were the kind of thing you picked up in reform synagogues – synagogues that were so unreligious that they didn’t even call themselves synagogues. They were “temples,” which was a stupid word when you could use “synagogue” instead, but it’s a word that some Jews use so they don’t come off sounding too much like Jews. “Yeah, we went to temple,” you’d hear someone say, and you knew, instinctively, that it was someone who probably owned an electric menorah.
Let me tell you about reform synagogues. “Reform” is not a euphemism, not by any stretch of the imagination. When a Jew calls himself a “reform” Jew, it means that if he goes any further, he’ll reform himself right out of the religion and the mohel will return and sew that hunk of skin back on. Their rabbis rarely have beards, mostly because beards still don’t go over very well in the business world, and most of these not-so-holy men want more money than they can earn in the god business. These rabbis, if I can use that word without choking on it, conduct their services mostly in English. No one wears yarmulkas and men over the age of twelve don’t wear tallises. Whenever I go into a reform synagogue, I’m always afraid I’m going to turn around and see a guy with a big nose crossing himself. Whenever I attend a bar mitzvah or wedding celebration at a reform synagogue, I always brace myself for the possibility that the appetizer will be shrimp cocktail.
But back to Christmas. Our rabbi, who did have a beard and did not moonlight in the rag trades, taught us clearly and beyond any reasonable doubt that Chanukah was not the Jewish Christmas. We were not to get presents, one to a night, like our gentile friends – that is, if we insisted on having gentile friends, which he strongly preferred that we did not. He also told us never to date gentile girls, never to go trick-or-treating on the pagan holiday of Halloween, and never to use the word “Christ,” which he explained was Greek for messiah, which we knew that Jesus definitely was not. Christmas, he said, was all about Madison Avenue, not about god, and if that was how our gentile friends chose to celebrate the birth of their lord – by buying toys, eating extraordinarily bland cookies, and putting dead trees in their living rooms – that was their business.
As we grew older, though, we were inexorably drawn into the wider Christian world, and so it was that in my seventeenth year I broke one of the rabbi’s rules when I found myself thoroughly infatuated with a shiksa with the highly improbable name of Mary Margaret. My Mary Margaret was an absolutely lovely creature with alabaster skin, long, silky blonde hair, no nose to speak of, enormous boobs, and by far the sweetest, gentlest disposition that I have ever encountered in any woman before or since, and certainly not at all like the dark, intense, mercurial Jewish girls who traveled in my social circle at that time.
This was during my junior year of high school, so I naturally took Mary Margaret to my junior prom. Until the prom, I had never even mentioned Mary Margaret to my parents, and when I announced our prom plans, Dad walked around the house for days, shaking his head from side to side and muttering “Mary Margaret, Mary Margaret.” That surprised me because Dad, alone in the family, lived mostly in the gentile world and was, or so I thought, more worldly than the rest of us, but his constant “Mary Margaret, Mary Margaret” -ing around the house suggested otherwise.
My unconsummated adolescent adoration of Mary Margaret continued halfway through my senior year of high school – until Christmas, to be precise. She invited me to spend Christmas day with her and her family, and even I, as infatuated as I was, knew better than to accept her well-intended but extremely inappropriate invitation. I said no, and though Mom and Dad were proud – no one had dared utter the words “Mary Margaret” in front of Bubby – Mary Margaret dumped me immediately and unceremoniously.
In hindsight, getting dumped by Mary Margaret was probably a good thing, but it certainly hurt when it happened. At the time, all I could think of was that alabaster skin and that stupendous chest and how eventually, I would have gotten a chance to know them better. I didn’t understand about good Catholic girls back then, but now I realize, with the wisdom of the years, that I could have stayed with Mary Margaret forever and not gotten any further than accidentally-on-purpose leaning my elbow on her sweater, which sat on top of a blouse that sat on top of her presumably enormous double yarmulka with chin straps – the “under-the-shoulder boulder holder,” as it was called by my younger brother, who was not so young that he couldn’t appreciate Mary Margaret’s considerable physical appeal.
I only learned about the bowling part of the Jewish Christmas tradition when I was in college and my younger sister was a member of one of those all-Jewish sororities that I despised only slightly less than reform temples. On the whole, these girls gave Jewry a bad name, but they had this wonderful tradition of getting all of their sorority sisters from far and wide to join them on Christmas eve, when they rented out an entire bowling alley from eight in the evening until eight the next morning. I gladly and proudly provided chauffeur service for my sister for several years – what the hell, it was on the way to the Chinese restaurant that had my favorite lychee duck and squid in black bean sauce.
In my first job after college, I worked in an office with a secretary I shared with four other people. The last day of work before Christmas, she asked me what I would be doing the following day.
“Nothing,” I said, thinking nothing of my reply.
Maybe my answer had one syllable too many, because she clearly did not understand me.
“What do you mean, ‘nothing’?” she asked.
“I mean ‘nothing,’” I said, and then, to make sure I was, as a certain Quaker president once put it, perfectly clear, added “I do nothing on Christmas. Absolutely nothing.”
“But don’t you get together with your family and friends on Christmas day?” she persisted.
“No,” I replied, now having to work to stifle the urge to get in her face. “It’s not our holiday, so we don’t do anything.”
“You mean you really don’t do anything? Not even get together?”
I stood there and thought for a moment, and it was like an epiphany for me. Not only did I suddenly and completely comprehend the significance of Christmas to my Christian brethren, but I also opened my heart to the Holy Trinity as I struggled internally to find a way to explain what Christmas meant to me.
“I’ll tell you, Joanne,” I finally explained, “it’s true that you don’t leave us with a helluva lot to do. Just about everything’s closed, so there’s almost nowhere to go and nothing to do. We’re stuck with a practically worthless day off from work, all dressed up with no place to go. We can sit around the house and eat and watch TV if we want, although most of the shows are about Christmas, which pisses us off to no end, or if we absolutely have to do something we go bowling, see a movie, or go out for Chinese food.”
“You’re kidding,” she said, still not quite believing. “You mean you don’t spend the day with your friends and family?”
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“No,” I declared in a tone that made it clear that these were going to be my last words on the subject. “We don’t get together because there’s no reason for us to get together. You’re celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus, which to you was a wonderful event, the blessed birth of your immaculately conceived god, although, to be honest, we’ve never really understood why you would worship the son of god and not the real thing. As far as we’re concerned, though, Jesus was just a bad rabbi gone astray. It happens, but there’s a rotten apple in every barrel, even the rabbi barrel. When you have your big holiday, though, you close the whole town down, and all we have left is our Jewish Holy Trinity for Christmas day: we can go bowling, see a movie, and eat Chinese food. As far as we’re concerned, December 25 isn’t about Christmas, Jesus, or a fat guy with a chimney fetish who abuses reindeer and overworks the vertically challenged. For us, it’s just another day to eat fucking Chinese food.”
I slammed the file drawer over which we had been talking and went back to my desk. Joanne still didn’t get it, but then, nine months later, when Rosh Hashanah came along and she asked why we celebrated the new year three months early and I rolled my eyes, at least she had the good sense not to pursue the matter. I considered it a small victory in a world of small victories.
* * *
“Morty’s Notes” (with apologies to Cliff)
A Gentile Guide
To the Yiddish in “Murray Christmas”
* With apologies for explaining some words that you undoubtedly know
Bubby – grandmother.
Goyim – gentiles.
Goyische – gentile, but an adjective rather than a noun.
Yussele – a Yiddish name, frequently used for men named Joseph.
Gornischt – nothing, zero, zilch, nada.
Schmatah – a throw-cloth, usually something thrown over a piece of furniture to protect it, but women occasionally use it to refer to old, worn-out dresses and especially old house coats.
Mohel – rhymes with “oil” – that nasty guy who performs the ritual circumcision. Ouch.
Yarmulka – a skullcap, which men wear in synagogue (except in reform synagogues, where they are optional and generally frowned upon). Women wear hats or veils.
Tallis – a prayer shawl that men wear in synagogue after they have reached the age of 13 and had their bar mitzvah. This, too, is generally frowned up in reform synagogues.
Shiksa – a female gentile. Like its male counterpart, “shagitz,” shiksa has become so much a part of the vernacular that it isn’t really considered derogatory, except as an observation. It probably is the equivalent of calling a black person a Negro. It’s ignorant, but really, it’s just an observation. It is not the same as calling a black person the n-word, which is unambiguous in its intent. When shiksa is used in a derogatory manner, you can tell by the tone of voice. To demonstrate, consider how the following sentence can be said aloud to sound neutral, just as an observation, or in a condemning manner: “My son is dating a shiksa.”