I miss Christmas. Maybe that is an odd thing for a rabbi to say. But some of my fondest childhood memories are centered on that most special time of the year. We would pile into the car and make the trek down to Schenck Avenue in Great Neck from the northern New York suburbs, the holy city of Monsey.
Their second floor apartment was warm and inviting, the aroma of grandma’s cooking the holiday meal and the warmth of the radiator steam heat dominated the distinct and usual grandma and grandpa smells. In the living room was the red velvety tufted Victorian-style couch, in one corner was the chair where grandpa sat, complete with an ottoman where he rested his feet when one of us was not sitting there by him. Next to the chair was a rack filled with magazines and a small wicker rocking chair used by each of the grandchildren until we were too big to fit. In front of the sofa was the coffee table with the glass top, painted with a floral design of greens, gold and a touch of red, which miraculously survived all of us. There was always strange food arranged on top, dried fruits and nuts. The figs, dates and apricots were arrayed in circles with small ivory picks to spear them and the holiday napkins stacked along side. I remember the walnuts particularly since they were in the shells and the necessary utensils, the metal nutcracker and the pick, were lined up like a surgeon’s tools waiting to be called upon for their specific and important duties. Although, I never really liked the taste, I loved cracking the nuts open and prying out the meat embedded inside.
In the corner was a small tree, with presents piled around its base. The tree shimmered and glowed with the colored lights and silver tinsel hanging. The distinct smell of pine filled this room. We distributed the presents, there was always something for everyone no matter who showed up. We then dutifully waited our turn to open out gifts. We usually went from youngest to oldest, and even though we were among the youngest, the wait to open the presents seemed interminable. I usually got a pair of cowboy boots and a fancy cowboy shirt with mother-of-pearl snap buttons from grandma. It wasn’t a surprise since we all made the trip to the store on Route 17 in New Jersey to get our fittings. These were a tribute to grandma’s past. She was a Texan, swept away from her family in Dallas by her new husband to a very foreign place called the Bronx.
Part of Grandma’s legacy was her upbringing as a Southern Baptist. Grandma worked hard to raise her children and her grandchildren as Jews, always participating and engaging. But she never converted. Christmas eve was our family’s way of acknowledging her past. I never would get the chance to ask her about how she felt about leaving all that behind when she went to New York, but I think I understand it now.
I profoundly miss Christmas. Although we never celebrated it as a religious holiday, it was a time filled with love and family. I will remember always the joy of those wonderful times we spent together. I cherish the memories and grandma will always hold a special place in my heart.