I am Jewish.
“Oh, are there a lot of Jews in North Dakota?” You may wonder. Let’s put it this way: we could throw a party for all of us at my synagogue and still have room for everyone to bring a friend.
I really like being Jewish in North Dakota, in part because I’ve always found non-Jewish North Dakotans to be interested in and enthusiastic about my religion. This is because 1) people here are nice, and 2) I’m the only Jew a lot of them know. As a result, our family’s annual Passover Seder had as many Christians in attendance as there were Jews. It was standing room-only at my Bat Mitzvah. We regularly had a guest at our Friday night services. And then, in exchange, my family would get invited to Easter services and Confirmations, and it helped me understand their religions as much as it helped them understand mine.
This kind of interfaith intermingling was a big part of my childhood. Back when you could do this sort of thing, my mother would come to my elementary school with a menorah and a bag of dreidels and she would tell the story of Hanukkah and the kids would ask all sorts of questions (such as my mom’s favorite: “Do Jewish people only drink Diet Mountain Dew?” – to which the answer is no, we drink lots of beverages) and then we’d eat our weight in chocolate coins, and it was a great time.
A few days later, my teacher would make the world’s most delicious cookie wreaths made of corn flakes, marshmallows, green food coloring, and Red Hots, and we’d watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and it was a great time.
Which brings me to the point of this story.
On Christmas Day, as the Christian world prays and eats and opens presents, the Jews have a tradition of our own: Chinese food and movies. Eating moo goo gai pan and sitting in a mostly-empty movie theater is as synonymous with the Jewish culture as serving bagels and lox at a Sunday brunch.
However – and I feel like I need to whisper this – my dad doesn’t like Chinese food. Also, there were only four movie screens in town when I was in elementary school (not including the dollar theater) and they typically showed all the same movie, and chances are we had already seen it by the time December 25 rolled around.
So, my family had a Christmas tradition of our own: we spent Christmas with the Christians. Specifically, the Episcopalians.
My dad grew up with a guy named Bob, who moved with his wife, Sally, back to Grand Forks right after my parents did the same in the mid-1970s. Sally and my mom were pregnant together with their eldest children (ta-da!), and thus was the birth of our surrogate family – and, more importantly in this case, what we named our ChrisHanukkah celebration.
Said celebration actually began each year in early December with the ceremonial decorating of their Christmas tree.
How long does it actually take to decorate a Christmas tree – thirty minutes? Less if you don’t have to string the lights? We managed to stretch it out into several hours.
Before we arrived, Sally would transform their house into a Christmas wonderland, with garland and lights and poinsettias and Santas and probably a hefty dose of magic. Even the little wooden ducks in the living room wore red bows around their necks for the occasion. And, of course, the centerpiece: the tree, which Bob would cover in enough lights to simulate a fireworks finale. As my family’s idea of holiday decorating was to stick a jack-o-lantern on the front step at Halloween, even just showing up at their house was an event.
It would take my dad and Bob twenty minutes to put on Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas album, because it’s apparently impossible to turn on a CD without a litany of dad jokes first. Then, with “Deck the Halls” at full volume, we’d decorate. Sally and my mom would unwrap the ornaments, the kids would hang them, and Bob and my dad would make fun of us.
Once the tree threatened to tip over from the weight of the decor, we’d run off to play (in our teenage years we’d sit and roll our eyes at how embarrassing our parents were, obviously), and the moms would “fix” all of our hard work before going to make dinner. I don’t know what the dads did; they may have gone out for beers for all that I know.
Sometimes Christmas tree decorating happened to fall during Hanukkah, and so my mom would fry up latkes and we’d sit in front of that big, beautiful, sparkling tree and light the menorah and play dreidel. And if it didn’t happen to be Hanukkah, I’m pretty sure we played dreidel anyway. Chocolate is chocolate, you know.
Then, filled with ChrisHanukkah merriment, we’d say goodbye until Christmas Day (symbolically, I mean, because we lived down the street and we saw them all the time).
If the house felt charmed during tree decorating, it was downright enchanting by December 25. Beyond the fact that we were going to a house that had just been filled with new toys, Christmastime for me was defined like a lot of Jewish holidays: by the meal.
We sat in the dining room, which was decorated to look a lot like the tree with fairy lights, garland, and the spirit of holiday. The big kids got to have a tiny glass of wine, and we all usually got a Christmas cracker, because there’s no better way to keep a child in a seat for a meal than with the promise of a paper crown and something you can shoot at your dad. And the food! My two favorite dishes were these creamed onions with flaky breadcrumbs on top and some kind of handmade noodle dish that was bathed in butter and deliciousness, and if you told me tomorrow I could eat them on a daily basis without fear of a heart attack I’d open Sally up a restaurant because her #1 customer is hungry.
The holiday season has changed over the last decade or so – we have a whole end-cap at the Grand Forks Target with Hanukkah decorations and just about every store sells “Get lit on Hanukkah” sweaters – and my family’s ChrisHanukkah tradition has been paused now that we are all grownups with kids of our own. But the spirit of ChrisHanukkah lies on. So if you are a Jew who doesn’t feel like moo shu this year, find yourself your own Christians for some holly jolly merriment. I’d highly recommend it.