In 1978 my father turned into the Grinch and it was The Year without a Santa Claus. As was every year thereafter. Now, if you've noticed my last name you might wonder what I am doing having any sort of feeling about Christmas when clearly I am Jewish. Well, we've come to another thing we can lay at the feet of my unfairly burdened parents. Until I was 12 my family celebrated Christmas. And by celebrate I mean we decorated a huge tree, read Twas the Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve, opened our presents on Christmas morning, had people over for a roast beef and Yorkshire pudding Christmas dinner and sang carols around the piano. And yes, we also lit a menorah.
This Jewish Christmas Syndrome was actually not that odd in New York at the time. My other Jewish friends also had trees and presents and most didn't have menorahs at all. My family also went to synagogue on the High Holidays and always had a Passover Seder -- although, one year my grandmother rewarded the grandchild who found the afikomen with a deluxe chocolate Easter bunny. So, you can see that I come to this split-faith personality honestly.
But there came an evening when my parents were invited to a tree trimming party at the Silvermans (their name has been changed to protect, well, me.) Witnessing the gargantuan tree, and the seemingly lovingly collected Victorian ornaments, my father had an epiphany, "Who do these people think they are? You think their parents were grabbing these ornaments when they were fleeing the Cossacks?!" And with that went Christmas.
But I loved Christmas. Among my (younger) siblings, I took the loss of this holiday the hardest since I'd celebrated it the longest. I loved the lights and the hymns we sang in the lobby of school during the week before Christmas vacation. I loved A Charlie Brown Christmas, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, watching a cynical Natalie Wood learn that Macy's Kris Kringle was truly Santa Claus, tearing up at treacly Hallmark card commercials, and of course every cookie.
To this day I brace myself for how I am going to get through a season where I feel left out. I stay busy with the surge of great movies, I get theater tickets, I make a big deal out of Chanukah presents for the nieces and I bake. This year there has been a little twist of fate that is helping to make December go a bit more smoothly than it has in the past. The usual trip my sister's brood takes to visit her husband's gentile family has been postponed. So she bought a tree to assure her daughters that the Santa who visits them at their other grandma's house would not forget them. That's all I needed to hear -- a legitimate tree to decorate and 'stockings to be hung by the chimney with care.' I helped (meaning I bossed her around and told her to pop popcorn and buy cranberries for garlands) and I went out to her house armed with gingerbread boys, girls and even dreidels. I mean, next week is the start of Chanukah and I'm not that bad. The decorating was left to the nieces.
We were having an amazingly perfect day when my sister surprised me with our old Christmas with the Brady Bunch album. Something she had, unbeknownst to me, rescued from an unauthorized sidewalk sale held by my then eight year old brother in 1980.
Hearing Bobby Brady warble "The Little Drummer Boy" was almost too much -- the real icing on the cake. (Or the sugar on the cookie.) Up next? The Candlelight Carol service at the First Presbyterian Church on Sunday afternoon. You can take the Jewish girl out of Christmas but you can't take the Christmas out of the Jewish girl.
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Note: This recipe is a pleasure to work with. The dough comes together beautifully, rolls so easily and has just enough spice for less experienced palates.
Interfaith Gingerbread Cookies
from The Good Housekeeping Cookbook, 2001 Hearst Communications, Inc.
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup light molasses
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 stick unsalted butter
1 large egg, beaten
3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
In 3 quart saucepan, combine sugar, molasses, ginger, allspice, cinnamon, and cloves; heat to boiling over medium heat, stirring occasionally with wooden spoon. Remove from heat; stir in baking soda (mixture will foam up). Stir in butter until melted. Stir in egg, then flour.
On floured surface, knead dough until thoroughly blended. Divide dough in half; wrap one piece in plastic wrap and set aside.
Preheat oven to 325.
Bake until brown around edges, about 12 minutes, rotating cookie sheets between upper and lower oven racks halfway through baking. With wide spatula, transfer cookies to wire racks to cool completely. Repeat with remaining dough and trimmings.
When cookies are thoroughly cool, decorate as desired. We used golden syrup as the "glue" to affix colored sugars, raisins, and little candies to our cookies. Corn syrup or pasteurized egg white would work well too.
Yield: about 3 dozen cookies