Tales of Jews at Christmas


Christmas is a complicated time for a lot of Jews.

Some feel left out as Christmas messages bombard the public consciousness. Yeah, there’s Chanukah, but that’s just not the same. And who remembers when schools had Christmas pageants — before the P.C. police renamed them holiday pageants — and they’d always throw the Jewish kids a bone by having the chorus sing “Dreidel, Dreidel”?

Others get depressed. There’s always a report each December about how depression levels tend to soar around Christmas, so it’s reasonable to believe that some of those depressed folks are Jews.

What most of us share, however, are awkward stories about being Jewish during the holiday season. A polling of staff members came up with the following tales. I’ll go first.

I grew up in Newtown Square in a then-new neighborhood that had a handful of Jews. Luminaries (candles inside paper bags) lined the street on Christmas Eve. Carolers went door to door. And later in the evening, everyone gathered at a neighbor’s house for dessert.

During one of the first years, all the kids were called up to the dessert table, which featured a white birthday cake.

A question was asked: “Does anyone know whose birthday it is?”

Of course, I knew the answer. “My mom!” I blurted out. It was true. She was born on Dec. 24.

“Uh, well, yes, but who else’s birthday is it?” whatever adult was in charge stammered. That one proved to be more challenging, so some gentile kid answered.

To this day, I swear everyone then sang “Happy Birthday Jesus and Barbara,” but my mom says otherwise.

A year or two later in the days before Christmas, someone knocked on the door. It was Santa! He was invited in and sat in our living room. My confused younger brother asked, “What are you doing here, Santa? We’re Jewish.”

Santa saved face with something along the lines of “Santa visits all the good children.”

But the Santa experiences didn’t end there.

Like in many towns, Santa rode the fire truck a few days before Christmas every year, with his firefighter helpers handing out candy canes. For whatever reason, we got outside late one year, and the firefighters had stopped giving out the candy canes.

My father said he would get us candy canes, but an annoying neighbor kid kept saying that he’d come away empty-handed because some kids had already gone back for seconds and the helpers were perturbed. My dad finally had enough and told the kid to shut up — then got us candy canes. Score one for Dad.

Finally, a couple years after that, my dad was driving me, my brother and his creepy friend when we passed Santa riding a fire truck on a main road in Newtown Square. The creepy kid (who happened to be Jewish), rolled down the window and, for whatever reason, shouted, “You stink, Santa!” Dad immediately yelled at the kid — “Why would you tell Santa he stinks?” — creating a lasting memory my brother and I laugh about to this day.

Staff Writer Selah Maya Zighelboim

About two years before I moved to Philadelphia, I came here for a week during winter break to visit a friend and check out the local sites.

It’s no secret that flying around the holidays is expensive, but in perusing my flight possibilities, I discovered one winter day when flying would be cheaper. (By cheaper, I mean normal.)

That day was Christmas.

I headed to the airport Dec. 25 for what was the best airport and flight experience of my life. The Austin, Texas airport was almost completely empty, and the handful of other flyers and airport employees there seemed to either be Jewish, Muslim or Hindu. The lack of occupants made for a quiet and peaceful wait.

Then came the actual flight.

Almost every seat on the plane was empty, to the point where I cannot fathom how the airline made any money. There was one other man in my row, who when the flight attendant came over to check on us before takeoff, asked, “Excuse me, ma’am, is there any way a Marine flying on Christmas day could get a seat with more leg room?”

Well, it’s hard to say no to a request like that, so I ended up the only one in my row for the duration of the flight.

Unfortunately, the incredible secret of flying on Christmas seems to have gotten out. I’ve flown once on Christmas since and had an entirely different experience, with a cramped and noisy airport and plane.

When I landed in Philadelphia from that incredible flight, I met with my friend and we headed to Chinatown for a proper Jewish Christmas celebration.

Staff Writer Joshua Needelman

I like Christmas.

Really, I do. No, we didn’t celebrate the holiday growing up. We didn’t put up a tree. But it’s impossible to not notice how much better of a mood many people seem to be in around Christmas.

I grew up on Long Island, which has its fair share of Jews. But it also has plenty of non-Jews, and their holiday spirit rubbed off on me. And it still does. December is cold and dark, but when Christmas rolls around, people play cheery music, decorate their houses with extravagant lights and, well, get drunk. What’s not to like?

Perhaps I was drunk with naiveté on Dec. 25, 2009. From my experience, the world shuts on down on Christmas Day. We ate in Chinese restaurants because they were all that was open in our suburban town. So, with Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat set to play my beloved New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, I convinced two of my friends to tag along with me to New York City.

Remember, this was back in 2009, before social media ruled the world and everyone showed up to events with prepurchased tickets on their smartphones. My plan was solid, I thought. We’d take the Long Island Railroad into Penn Station, buy our tickets at the box office, catch the Knicks game and maybe stop at a Chinese restaurant. What else would be open?

Everything, it turns out. New York City doesn’t close on Christmas Day, and MSG was overflowing with Knicks fans. We waded our way to the ticket booth. No, we were informed, we could not have three tickets. The game was sold out.

Crushed, my pals and I meandered about. How could the game be so crowded? It was Christmas Day, after all.

We wandered back to Times Square, hoping for a miracle. We found one — or, I thought I found one — in the form of an eager man in a green jacket. He had three tickets, he told us, and he was selling them at half-price. Did we have $120?

We huddled. “Let’s do it,” I said, perhaps blinded by holiday spirit, perhaps feeling a little too trusting. One of my friends was ambivalent. The other was resolute, insisting that, obviously, these tickets were fake. Why else was he selling them so cheaply?

I demurred and, ultimately, my passion won out. We paid the man, clutched the tickets and triumphantly strode up to security. One quick scan of the barcode revealed the truth: We had been duped. We had bought fake tickets.

Defeated, demoralized and humbled, we trudged away from the Garden, away from Wade, away from what turned into a 93-87 Knicks loss. We found the nearest Chinese place, scarfed down some dumplings and lamented what could have been.

My friends have never forgotten that day. Remember when you made us buy fake tickets? Yes. Yes, of course I do.

The incident comes to mind every year once late-December rolls around. I shake it off, though. Christmas is near, after all, and everyone is seemingly in a better mood. I am, too. Except for one small regret:

I’ve still never been to a Knicks game.

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