A Midwestern Jewish Girl's Christmas Envy

And how she came to enjoy a holiday season without Santa

by Sally Koslow • Next Avenue
christmas tree image
Photograph: Shutterstock.com

Every year at the first sighting of a poinsettia, many of my Jewish friends from New York, Chicago or Los Angeles recall youthful feelings of wistful exclusion. To them I say, boo-hoo. If you want to know real Christmas envy, try growing up Jewish in a frostbitten North Dakota town with a Lutheran church on every other corner and a sign on the main drag that exhorted us to "Keep the Christ in Christmas."
The Fargo of my childhood was a close-knit community with a thick Scandinavian accent. (Cue A Prairie Home Companion, rent the Coen brothers classic and Google "lefse" and "lutefisk" here.) At holiday time, there were Tom & Jerry parties for adults and, for the kids, tree-trimming gatherings with mugs of cocoa floating marshmallows like miniature snowdrifts. Although I knew every carol, even the second verses, there was no mistaking that these festivities were to honor the away-in-a-manger Little Lord Jesus, not to jam in an ecumenical hootenanny with everyone singing praises to Irving Berlin. 

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Christianity was writ large. As a result, to the credit of my parents, who wanted to raise my brother, sister and me to honor our identity, a tinseled line divided our family from the holiday.
We attended Hebrew school and a Zionist summer camp, bought trees to plant in Israel — and Yuletide merrymaking stopped at the mezuzah on our front door. To the grumbling dismay of our neighbors, the blue spruce that towered in the front yard wasn't decked out with any twinkling lights — nor did it shelter a nativity scene. Inside, there was no tree facing a stocking-hung fireplace.
On Christmas Day our family didn't even gather with others of our tribe for Chinese food (as I learned only years later was the national custom among Jews) because the only Chinese restaurant was closed. (It also served fluffy Parker House rolls with the egg foo yung, an equally grave concern.) Movie theaters? Shuttered.
I suspect that Fargo's 200 or so other Jews — there was never an official census, even though the mayor, one Herschel Lashkowitz, belonged to my Temple — passed the day as I did: ruminating on the huge hole where Christmas should be. I experienced December as the equivalent of a tropical depression that by the 24th had conflated into an emotional hurricane.
Putting the X in Xmas
The antidote to this envy, I learned, was to move to Manhattan, where Xmas — which is how the holiday deserves to be spelled in places like the Big Apple — immediately struck me as a monster bazaar whose not-at-all-subliminal message was buy, baby, buy. The whole city was done up as one dazzling ornament. Store windows knocked my eyes out. And in my annual trek to ooh and ah in front of the displays, if I didn't make a solemn pilgrimage to St. Patrick's Cathedral, I could easily forget that the hoopla was for an actual religious holiday.

Want to know how Koslow beat her Christmas envy? Read the rest of the story on Next Avenue

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Photo courtesy of Jo Ann Snover/Shutterstock.com

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