WE JEWS ARE a lonely lot on Christmas: While our Christian friends are snuggled in front of a cozy fire, opening gifts and scarfing down plum pudding (I once dated an Episcopalian, so I know), we sit huddled together on wooden benches, eating gefilte fish and reading aloud from the Torah.
Okay, not really, but that’s how it feels to me. Despite the growing commercialization of Hanukkah, Christmas will always be Numero Uno. And despite my own participation in the festivities, baking sugar cookies and mailing cards to distant friends, December 25 finds me bereft from dawn till dusk. There’s little to do but wait it out. Everything is closed except for the 7-11, and believe me, after the coffee and donuts and an hour or two scanning magazines, that’s pretty much played. As for TV, how many times can you watch Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed discover that “It’s a Wonderful Life” after all?
Growing up in the New York City suburbs in the late fifties, in the shadow of St. Agnes Cathedral, ours was one of only two Jewish families living on a street full of hardened Catholics. Holidays of any sort ignited full-blown block parties involving anyone who owned a Tupperware container. Naturally in such an environment, Christmas was a big deal, spawning blinking colored lights, glowing rooftop reindeer and giant candy canes worthy of a Fellini dream sequence. Amid all the holiday glitz, two houses remained dark: ours and the Shreibmans’ across the street.
It may sound ordinary, but what set Willow Street apart was that Santa Claus, in the flesh, visited every house on Christmas Eve. (Apparently our street was the rest stop on his round-the-world tour.) He did the whole milk-and-cookies bit, leaving behind a gift for every child. He even came to our house, he being an all-inclusive, non-denominational Santa.
One snowy Christmas when I was six, as I was hurrying home after a spirited snowball fight, I noticed something odd at Joanne Rooney’s house. There was a light on in the garage, and there was a man dressed only in his long underwear! Boy, he must be cold, I thought. Then I noticed, hey, he looks like Mr. Rooney, but when did he get so fat? He was stuffing a pillow into his suit, and wait a minute, that suit looks familiar. The sack of toys, the white beard, the black boots–Jew or no Jew, I knew Santa when I saw him. Joanne Rooney’s father was Santa Claus!
Still reeling from the recent shock of learning that my mother was the “Tooth Fairy,” I plopped down into a snowdrift to catch my breath, all the while watching Mr. Rooney complete his transformation into Old Saint Nick.
Bursting with the news, I raced home and confronted my parents, demanding some fast answers about a certain Irishman and a red velvet suit. After some preliminary stalling, they caved, explaining that Mr. Rooney was “helping” Santa. “Promise you won’t tell any of the other kids,” my mother begged, a haunted look of terror in her eyes. “Do you promise?”
“Yeah, sure, I promise,” I said, but that promise didn’t apply to my very best friend who lived right next door! Suzanne was French, and certainly could be trusted: Since returning from a Thanksgiving visit to her grandparents in France, she had all but forgotten English anyway. Unfortunately her bilingual older sister overheard me, and before you could say “Anderson Cooper” the story hit the street.
Of course there were the usual skeptics who assumed I was just bitter about the Holocaust, but most of the kids conducted their own research, pulling at Santa’s beard and asking if Joanne could come out and play. The jig was definitely up.
Things were tense on Willow Street for many months. The Shreibmans fled to friendlier waters in Boca Raton, and I took to playing with the kids from my Hebrew school class. Eventually I was forgiven, mostly because there were no applicants for my position as “permanent ender” in jump rope, and Santa Rooney kept his appointed rounds the next year. But he never stopped at our house again, leaving a void I experience anew every Christmas Eve. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t say a word.
— Andrea Rouda
Andrea Rouda blogs at The Daily Droid.