Dreidel on Christmas Morning

In my leafy hometown, where almost everyone lived in a white house and was proud to come from the side of Massachusetts where people could pronounce the letter "a" correctly, Christmas came to six of the eight houses on our side of the block.

From the Kennedys on one corner, past the Woolleys, the Williamses, and down to the end of the street, only the Kraft and Kauffman houses were without colored lights and wreaths. It was that way all over town. Every few houses, one was undecorated. That image became as much a part of my childhood Christmases as the fat, fragrant Scotch pine tree in the living room and the fizzy feeling of joy in my chest at waking up before dawn on December 25 and realizing that it was finally the day.

At first I knew only that the undecorated houses were where Jewish families lived, and understood that they celebrated Hanukkah, a longer holiday of their own. A little later I was told about the Maccabees and learned that Mary and Joseph weren't the only ones being picked on. And then the big revelation. While my young Jewish friends didn't quite get the idea of a Virgin birth, it seems they had a miracle of their own: eight days of light from one day's worth of oil. Now, here was a miracle that I could actually envision -- if only because I'd listened as my mother magically talked the electric company into overlooking our unpaid bill and leaving the lights on.

As a result, I formed the firm idea that the time between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day was one long season of religious celebration, not two holidays representing different theologies. My parents were probably aware of this belief, and as was the case with most of my stubbornly held theories, they never questioned me about it.

More practically, the existence of both holidays mean that my friend Bonnie, who lived next door, would come over and let me boss her around while she helped decorate our tree. Likewise, I could watch her family light the Hanukkah candles, and she got to roll her eyes and poke me in the side when I asked what the Hebrew phrases meant.

This was all helped by the fact that I had decided early on that most of the truly interesting people in town were Jewish. Although the folks at St. Andrew Episcopal Church were nice enough, it never occurred to me to socialize with the people I prayed next to on Sundays. This attitude was doubtless fostered by my father's small regard for our fellow congregants. "Low-Church,'' he'd hiss to me when one of them failed to cross themselves before receiving Communion. The people who attended the picturesque white Protestant church at the head of the town green got even shorter shrift. "The Church of the Vague,'' he called it, "where they worship St. Boredom.''

I understood that some people didn't share my feelings about Jews; I knew what anti-Semitism was. But armed with my Southern mother's ruling on the kids who yelled mean things at the Hebrew-school bus one week before Christmas ("They're nothing but white trash and you should be ashamed to be seen with them"), I wrote them off.

And somehow the holiday season, despite the many painful moments that I later came to associate with it -- marital battles (my parents' and my own); alcoholic binges (my father's and my own); harried, snowy Christmas days spent racing from one family member's house to another, trying to unsuccessfully please everyone -- continues to be a celebration of both Christmas and Hanukkah.

With logic that seems faultless to me (and probably irritates Christian and Jewish purists alike), the two remain tied together: the festival of light commemorating the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the birthday of the Jewish teacher who personified God on Earth.

The way in which I celebrate the holidays has changed over and over again. This season I lit Hanukkah candles and do not have a Christmas tree. Last year I decorated my home with more colored lights than Macy's department store. Once I gave a few close friends a toy on each of the eight days of Hanukkah, and we spent Christmas morning playing with them on my living-room floor.

The holiday geography has changed repeatedly as well -- from my (white, leafy) childhood home, to a 200-year-old farmhouse in New Hampshire, to a tiny apartment in downtown Seattle, and, once, to a snowed-in hotel room (without room service or companion) in the middle of Washington, D.C.

But the one thing remains unchanged. Somehow, the two traditions, Christmas and Hanukkah, remain intertwined. Through all the changes and the moves, the questioning, rebelling, and re-evaluating, my holiday season remains a time when all the snowy streets have rows of wreaths punctuated by a few plain doors, and when I spend the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day sticking with the stubborn belief that I can honor two traditions with the same heart.

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