The huge menorah hung over the rink, suspended by wire so thin you could barely detect it. Below, skaters glided and spun to the Klezmer music. Shoppers hurried past, eager to get home to fry their sufganiyot for the first night of the holiday. Mary clutched her daughter’s hand, scanning the mall directory. Where could she buy ornaments, red and green placemats? Her holiday was three weeks away, but the mall barely noticed.
Not that Chanukah interfered much with her life. The main activities seemed to involve lighting candles and eating fried foods. Businesses stayed open, and besides a few shows like Latkes for Lev and Those Meshugganah Maccabees, TV didn’t pay much notice either.
But Mary was ready for Christmas and where was her buzz? She’d packed up the pumpkins and Indian corn and was ready for mistletoe and shiny gifts. But her Florida town left the Christian minority to celebrate on their own. She should be used to the outsider status, she knew; but in December, it burned.
Heading for a kitchen goods store which Mary thought might carry holiday stuff, they passed by the food court, where boys in yarmulkes lounged at the tables. Women in long sleeves pushed babies in strollers with shopping bags stowed underneath. The storefronts were decked out with dreidls and menorahs, only the Disney Store sporting a Mickey Mouse perched on a fake spruce. No wreaths with red bows, no smiling Santas. Couldn’t the Tampa Town Mall manage a single Santa?
Grasping Ruth’s hand, Mary spotted the kitchen store wedged between a lingerie place and a coffee bar. Though the girl was almost six, she was still prone to wandering off, leaving Mary frantic till she caught sight of the child ogling the cookie kiosk. When they passed through the store entrance, a smiling man with glasses approached them.
“Happy Chanukah!” he said, stooping to hand Ruth a bag of chocolate coins. The girl glanced up at her mother, eyes wide. Mary sighed. Why did everyone assume you were Jewish?
“We don’t celebrate,” she said. The apology in her voice annoyed her.
The man laughed. “Christian, Buddhist, everyone likes chocolate, right? Besides, Chanukah’s an American holiday.” Mary shook her head. There was no point arguing. And denying Ruth candy would teach her — what, exactly?
“Thanks,” she said, nodding at Ruth, who took the chocolate and stuffed it into her little purse.
Inside the store, large tables were decked out with blue stoneware and yellow chrysanthemums. Potatoes sizzled on a range. Toward the back, Mary spied some red tablecloths and angel napkin rings, and tossed several into her cart. The dearth of Christmas items was nothing new, but bothered her especially this year with Ruth starting kindergarten, the only Christian in the class. At the church preschool, the kids had hung stockings and sung carols. Now school would be open on the twenty-fifth. She’d keep Ruth home of course, but the holiday would pass unnoticed by her classmates and teacher. Despite the body heat of the mall, Mary felt a chill.
She brought her items to the register. “Ready for Chanukah?” the cashier asked, scanning the codes. Mary pretended not to hear, tucking her purchases into a red and green tote and hurrying out of the stuffy mall. They found the car and headed for home.
When they turned into Palm Haven, an enclave of tidy ranch houses, the streets were lined with cars. Chanukah parties, Mary figured, realizing she’d be the only one out stringing lights and inflating the Santa. What did the neighbors think of her annual ritual? No one ever said anything, but you just couldn’t know.
Pulling into the driveway, she waved at Jerry Katz, hunched on all fours on his lawn next to a tall stack of sod. Her new neighbor worked on his house every weekend; last Sunday he’d put up a wrought iron fence to contain the Bichon, Shana, though in a matter of hours the dog learned to squeeze through the posts and escape.
“Oy,” Jerry groaned, straightening up one vertebra at a time. “So, what is it? Wax or electric?”
Mary sighed. The perennial question. It would be dishonest to give the impression that she lit a menorah. Some Christians did, of course. Better to let Jerry know right off she didn’t celebrate. But might that sound hostile?
“Actually, we’re Christian,” she said brightly. “Putting our tree up tonight.”
“So you don’t do Chanukah? You eat latkes and give presents, right?”
“Presents? Yes! Just got back from the mall.” Mary held out her shopping bag, grinning to bridge the gulf she’d created. Jerry might not know many Christians, she realized. How could she expect him to understand? “Happy holidays,” she said, and lugged the packages into the house.
When she unlocked the door, the cuckoo clock was chiming two. She’d have to start decorating now if she hoped to finish by dark. Ruth skipped by into her room, and Mary climbed to the attic to fetch the lights and reindeer, along with the inflatable Santa she’d bought online.
A few hours later the sky had darkened to orange and purple, and Mary had the house decked out in style. She flipped a switch and white lights lit the roof-line like electric lace, twinkling reindeer nibbled the St. Augustine grass. The star of the display, Santa, clutched a sack of toys in one fiberglass hand. The rest of the street was dark except for menorahs glowing in the windows. Did the neighbors think her place looked festive, she wondered, or garish? Would they drive by and smile, or shake their heads?
She shrugged and headed inside. It was a free country and you got to do what you wanted with your house, zoning permitting. Mary made supper and put Ruth to bed, then switched on the TV. Karl was in Lakeland helping his mother prepare for the holiday, her first Christmas since Karl’s dad died. Mary flipped through the hundred-plus stations and settled on “Matisyahu Unplugged,” the story of the Chanukah hero updated with information from new archaeological finds. If nothing else she’d pick up some tidbits to share at work. Stretching out on the sofa, she munched a candy cane, feeling like a stranger in her own living room.
The next morning at nine, Mary looked out the window and saw her brother’s truck at the curb. That was Peter — prompt, as always. She locked up the house and climbed into the truck.
“No Ruth?” Peter asked.
“She has a friend’s party at noon.”
Peter shot Mary a glance as he merged onto the interstate. “That’s how it starts, you know. In a few years she’ll want to go to school on Christmas. ‘Church is boring,’ she’ll say, ‘I’ll fall behind if I miss class.’ Teachers aren’t supposed to give tests but they do. You can’t travel to see family with no vacation days. Our holiday gets screwed.”
“Back in Milwaukee they used to close school on Christmas, remember?”
“AND Christmas eve. But this is Florida. And wait till Ruth starts dating. Two percent is a small pool to fish in. That’s why so many Christians end up marrying Jews.”
“And that’s so awful?”
“That our people are disappearing? Jews won’t want to baptize your grandchildren, you know, or let them paint Easter eggs. How will that feel?” How would that feel, Mary wondered.
“That’s why we send Jenna and Dylan to Ascension,” Peter went on. “Gives them a Christian foundation.” She’d heard this lecture before from Peter’s wife, who wanted nothing to do with “the Jews.”
“At least Jews don’t try to convert you,” Mary said.
“Maybe not, but just wait. Ruth will want to be like the other kids, especially this time of year. The December dilemma.”
“Right. Wise words from your pastor.”
He turned to her. “Sometimes I think you’re anti-Christian.” Peter clutched the wheel and stared ahead at the smooth stretch of road. Somehow their outings always ended up like this.
“Look, I get what you’re saying. But Ruth has to learn to get along with everyone. Christians are a tiny group. We can’t just wall ourselves off.”
“Minorities are never secure.”
“You really are paranoid.”
“You’re naïve. Christians think they’re safe in this country, but the welcome mat can disappear any time.”
“They can’t just revoke religious freedom. It’s in the Constitution.”
“Really? Dictators throw laws out all the time.”
“And a meteor can wipe out the human race tomorrow. I can’t worry about every conceivable catastrophe. My head would explode.” Mary stared out at the road, longing for fresh air, knowing if she rolled down the window all she’d inhale was car exhaust.
“All I’m saying,” said Peter, “is we have to protect our traditions or no one else will.”
They rode in silence until they reached Mary’s, then dragged in the big tree in and set it in a corner.
“Stay for coffee?” Mary said.
“I’d better take off. Merry Christmas.” Peter pecked her cheek and left. She sank down on the sofa and gazed at the towering spruce. Getting the tree used to be so much fun. Were they having fun yet?
Cookies, that’s what they needed, Mary thought, and trudged to the kitchen to gather the bowls and ingredients. If red and green sugary angels couldn’t gin up some holiday cheer, nothing would. Soon the oven warmed the kitchen and the smell of dough mingled with spruce.
In the front hall, she heard the front door open and shut. Ruth — home from her party. Mary hurried in with the plate of warm cookies. “Look what I made!”
Ruth scrunched up her nose. “I had jelly doughnuts at Emma’s. My tummy hurts.”
“That’s okay,” Mary said, deflated. “We’ll eat them tomorrow.” Maybe she’d bring a batch to the Katz’s while they were still fresh. Ruth disappeared into her room. Through the door, Mary heard her murmuring to the Barbies. She covered the cookies and set water to boil for pasta, hoping Karl would make it home in time to eat. When six o’clock came, he still hadn’t returned, nor had Ruth’s appetite. Mary poured ketchup on spaghetti and ate by herself, longing for the Sunday feasts of her childhood with aunts and cousins. It had been easy to gather the clan when they lived in the same town, but she’d moved a thousand miles when she’d married, and things were so different now, anyway. Kids holed up with their video games and iPhones, texting through meals and church, everyone leading their separate electronic lives.
Headlights flashed in the window. Moments later Karl came through the door, his mouth drooping like a bloodhound’s.
“Traffic on I-4 was murder,” he said, flopping down on the couch.
“How’s your mom?”
“How do you like my decorations?”
“Nice.” He switched on the TV and closed his eyes.
Mary dropped onto the couch. “I thought we could trim the tree tonight.”
Karl opened his eyes and frowned at the eight-foot spruce. “If you want.”
Ruth wandered in dressed in pajamas. “My stomach still hurts.”
“Will decorating the tree make it better?” asked Mary.
“Do we have to, tonight?” Ruth yawned.
Mary sighed. She’d hoped to tell Ruth the story of each treasured ornament, now she was old enough to understand. The crystal angel her grandma had brought from Galway; the wooden trains her father had carved with such care.
Ruth’s face brightened. “Emma gave me a dreidl, so I’ll have one to spin when we play at school.”
“That was nice,” said Mary. Peter’s voice played in her head. Ruth will want to be just like the other kids. “Wash your face and I’ll tuck you in.” She looked over at Karl, staring at the TV, where girls in bikinis were hijacking a Budweiser truck. He seemed older than when he’d left for Lakeland two days before.
“Why don’t you turn in too,” she told him. “I’ll take care of the tree.”
Moments later the house went dark.
“Oh, great,” Karl said, pulling a flashlight from an end table drawer and switching it on. “We may as well all go to bed,” he said, and trudged upstairs.
Mary led Ruth down the dark hall and tucked her in, then returned to the family room. Moonlight streamed through the window, illuminating the spruce. She wasn’t tired, and trimming the tree by moonlight would be something new, like a pre-Edison Christmas.
She pulled ornaments from a large tub and laid them out on the floor. So many memories, like the tiny palm they’d bought to celebrate their first Florida holiday, missing the snow and sleds. A photo of Ruth tucking her American Girl into its cradle, which cost her half a week’s pay.
She dragged the step-stool next to the tree and climbed to the top, the shimmering garland in hand. As she reached for the back of the tree, she felt the stool tipping and jumped to the floor. No point ending this crummy day with a concussion, she decided, and tossed the ornaments back in the tub.
The next morning, she walked Ruth the half mile to school, the street flanked with queen palms. Ruth had insisted on wearing her Santa hat, and Mary hoped the kids wouldn’t tease her. Maybe they’d dress in new holiday clothes and bring blue and white gifts for the teacher, who’d sing the songs everyone knew, everyone except Ruth. She pictured her family tree, roots shriveling as if doused with Roundup. Peter was right, public school was cultural suicide. What had she expected?
When they reached the school gate, Mrs. Konigsburg stood outside greeting the parents and kids. When she saw Mary, she waved.
“Do you have a minute?” she asked. “I want to show you what I bought for the children.”
Mary followed her into the classroom, wondering why she’d been singled out. Inside, the smell of chalk and Elmer’s glue took her back thirty years. On the teacher’s desk sat a small silver tree and a Rubbermaid tub.
“I hoped you might come in and make Christmas ornaments with the children,” the teacher said. “Maybe show them a few of your own.” Mary peered into the box, filled with felt, doilies, and popsicle sticks. A wealth of possibilities.
Loved this, Liz. It’s beautifully written and thought provoking. I hear, I think, a cry for your customs to be honored and known. Maybe. My mom lived in Israel for two years, we have numerous friends that are Jewish,and my sister attends a “messianic” synagogue. Yet what you’ve expressed is new to me. The deepness of it. As a Christian, I miss the references to Christ at Christmas. My heart hurts over the thousands of Santa Clauses. When I asked in a store for a Nativity this past Chrisrmas, I was told there might be one on a back shelf. (Now that is not true in most stores here in Tennessee but was in Florida.) These things are hard right now, but then I think they always have been. As a believer in God, my faith is in his goodness and love even when it is missing in this life. You’re a wonderful writer.
A wonderful flip side to the predominantly Christian culture in our country. Anyone or culture or religion can be a minority at any given time.
I love how your descriptions are so vivid. As I read the story, it was easy to picture the scenes. The family dynamics and sibling conversation is so realistic. I like how you provoke so many emotions; holiday, family, loss of parent, cultural change. I really enjoyed the reading and think your quite talented!
I love this. It shows that any group can be a minority. It’s all about how others make you feel and your own perception. As one who considers Xmas a strictly commercial event, I enjoy the cultural references. Great piece, Liz.
Thought provoking. I’m not Jewish, but I certainly get the point. I always try to gear my greetings to the people involved. To Jews, I say “Happy Hanukkah.” To Christians, I say “Merry Christmas.” If I’m unsure, I say “Happy Holidays,” and so on. It aggravates me when I hear small-minded people insist that it’s Merry Christmas not Happy Holidays.
Thank you for reading, and for your sensitivity. The greeting issue is just the tip of the larger concern for minorities – whether to assimilate and give up their traditions, or retain them and stand apart from the majority. Both entail costs, making the choice tough. This is not a complaint, just an exploration of a phenomenon those in the majority may never think about.
What a thought-provoking story, vividly told. Such natural dialogue and keen emotional insight.
What a thought-provoking story, vividly told. Such natural dialogue, and a keen sense of emotional insight.
Excellent story, it would be great to have the tables turned like that just for one holiday season. I liked the local references.