We never celebrated Christmas during my childhood. We celebrated the Winter Solstice. As pagan Jews, we wanted the light to return to illuminate the world. On the darkest day of the year, we schlepped our tree from Columbus Ave to 44 West 77th Street and because we didn't crown it with a star, we never thought of it as Christian. We decorated it with an assortment of angels, colored spheres, tinsel and goodies. We assembled presents underneath the tree.
As my mother said, we were celebrating the return of light. Although I didn't yet know about Diwali or Kwanzaa, I did understand that all over the Northern Hemisphere people had developed celebrations to encourage light. Chanukah, Christmas, what did it matter? We stoked the Yule Log fire and blessed the unity of humanity.
We always had an enormous party. My mother presided over an open house with cases of champagne, roast beeves, turkeys, hams, yams, salads and platters of French cheeses. The buche de noel was pagan as well--as were the potato latkes, rugelach and petites fours. My father played the piano and favored Rogers and Hart and Cole Porter. Sexy women leaned over him falling out of their dresses and singing out of tune. But nobody cared as long as the champagne flowed.
This was a time of overindulgence. People got drunk and didn't run to "meetings." Women wore provocative clothes and jiggled. Men kissed you under the mistletoe and grabbed your ass behind the bar.
How sober we are today--at least in comparison. American Christmases used to be intemperate. The Christmas party was the subject of risqué cartoons in the New Yorker. This was appropriately pagan. The pagans knew that people had to let loose from time to time in order to hold it in the rest of the year.
Are we smarter for all our sobriety? Who knows? Certainly, excess of alcohol destroys lives. But where are the stolen kisses, the bluesy music and the feeling of anything goes (as Cole Porter wrote)? Eventually someone did the Charleston and slid along the waxed parquet at my parents' parties. Sooner or later, someone threw up in their bathroom. By sundown, the adults staggered home with their kids in tow. Christmas had nothing to do with Christ and Chanukah nothing to do with the Macabees.
"Let there be light!" was the only message. And we still need light to come out of the darkness. We need it more than ever in the coming year.