Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Rabbi Looks at Christmas; or, Remembering a New York December Boyhood

I am not a Christian; but, with Chanukah safely away and Christmas about to come, can share whatever feelings a Jewish person may allow himself to have about this supreme Christian festival. Let us put aside any pagan, mythological, or Greco-Roman precedents to Christianity; it is called syncretism—the ability of a new religion to gain adherents by appropriating old customs and beliefs from preexistent folkways, altering them slightly, and saying, “See, this is something new!” Judaism did it, as well—witness the sandek, the person honored by holding the boy-baby’s legs apart at the brit milah, or ritual circumcision (Are non-Orthodox Jews still circumcising babies? I do hope so.). His name derives from the synteknos, the godfather at a Christian baptism.

Growing up in NYC, I always looked forward to the December holidays, when people seemed to act more kindly, or at least, less cruelly, toward one another. I would race home in the gathering darkness, and, before I was allowed to wolf down my dinner, and settle down to an evening of homework, my father would gruffly urge me to “David! Light your Chanukah candles!”—there was always less ritual than rush about it, and we never did it as a family—perhaps on Erev Shabbat—since my sister and parents and I always came home at different times of the day; no one thought to suggest that, perhaps, we might do it as a unit. I did not feel deprived; it was just the way things were.

Uptown was a different story. The department store windows were ablaze with light, and full of mechanical toys, puppets, and marionettes; little trains whirred in circles; huge jack-in-the-boxes wobbled and leered as they went up-and-down; Santas, both mechanical and live (appearing on a schedule, of course; one time, I spoke to one, via microphone through a window, and asked him for “an electric train and accessories”—I don’t believe he heard me properly, but he smiled, waved, and nodded), appeared, amid their elves, along with Mrs. Claus, who always brandished a tray of fake cookies. We wondered at the marvels of the season.

There was also the great, gigantic Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, and the Holiday Show at Radio City Music Hall, where the Rockettes, bedecked all in red, gold, and green, kicked their trim, well-coordinated legs ‘way up high (My poor, short mother would note, “But their faces—so ugly!—who can bear to look at them?”), and we gawked at the “Living Nativity,” where Joseph and a shepherd would lead a donkey and goat onto the stage--on leashes, of all things!--so that the animals would not bolt and fall into the orchestra pit while on their way to see Mary and the Christ-child-doll.

Later, the Rockettes would re-enact the line of Toy Soldiers, all falling down neatly and in line before the onslaught of a toy cannon. As the climax of the show, a monstrously-large Cross, made all of artificial pink, red, and white flowers would descend from the stage rafters. I remember thinking, “What a magnificent religion! Is this what goes on in church, every Sunday?” The only church I knew about was St. Mary’s Roman Catholic of Trinity Parish on Grand St., and I had been warned not to approach it—the rumors were that Whoever inhabited the staid, old red-brick building would kidnap little Jewish yeshiva boys, who were never seen again.

Once, daring my own courage, I stood long enough in front of St. Mary’s to see a sliver within, as two elderly lady-worshipers emerged. I saw a tiny bit down what must have been the main aisle of the sanctuary, to a statue of the church’s namesake, Mother Mary herself, carved out of white marble, but could not then make out Who or What it was, all spooky-looking and white. I skittered down the steps of the church, and made my getaway: so much for interfaith research. Ah, the ignorance of youth! I have since done penance for my bigotry, and have learned to know and appreciate the religious faith of my neighbors.

But Christmas Uptown was all spectacle, decoration, and music piped into the city streets. Such, such were the joys of a New York Christmas, in the eyes of a young yeshiva boy.

Here is a poem by T.S. Eliot, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees.” It is a favorite of mine; I do not share its theology, but I love what crusty old Eliot, a High Anglican and High Modernist, has to say about the festival and its importance for young children:

The Cultivation of Christmas Trees by TS Eliot.

There are several attitudes towards Christmas, 
Some of which we may disregard: 
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial, 
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight), 
And the childish – which is not that of the child 
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel 
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree 
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree: 
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder 
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext; 
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement 
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree, 
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions 
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell), 
The expectation of the goose or turkey 
And the expected awe on its appearance,

So that the reverence and the gaiety 
May not be forgotten in later experience, 
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium, 
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure, 
Or in the piety of the convert 
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit 
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children 
(And here I remember also with gratitude 
St.Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas 
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last) 
The accumulated memories of annual emotion 
May be concentrated into a great joy 
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion 
When fear came upon every soul: 
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end 
And the first coming of the second coming. (1954)