"Is it even? Trim just a little bit more off of the left side. No, no, that's too much? OK, is it even now? Take just a little, little, little bit more off. Yes, yes, that's perfect."
Sound like a trip to the local beauty parlor or barbershop? Well, not to me. Those are the words of my Jewish mother during the annual and often tedious ritual of sculpting the Christmas tree into an evergreen tower of perfect symmetry. My mother, with little guidance from her Catholic husband or his family, must have taken her cue on how to "do Christmas" from the window dressers at Macy's.
Our house was transformed into a Christmas menagerie, with my mother ever directing my brothers and me: "Michael, now I know there is another box, you know the one, with the Three Wise Men in it, go look, huh?" She'd ask, "Gary, see if you can find the angel. No, not that one, the one for the top of the tree."
With my mother, brothers, and me packing and unpacking boxes and sculpting the Christmas tree, you may ask, where was my Dad? You know, the Catholic guy. You see, Dad really wanted no part of the whole operation. I always had a sense even then that this was much ado about nothing for him. That was certainly the case in the home in which he grew up. Occasionally, you would find Mother at the base of the staircase calling up to him, "John, John, are you coming down to help with the Christmas decorations?"
To us kids-Michael, Christopher and myself-their ability to enter into each other's religions, with all of the rituals and celebrations, was seamless. Dad moved through Passover, Hanukkah, and the High Holy Days with the same ease and commitment that Mom had for Christmas. The two religions, Catholicism and Judaism, were never meshed or confused or homogenized in our house. Both were respected, practiced and shared, not only amongst us but also with others.
Growing up in an interfaith home not only offered me a unique perspective on holiday celebration, it allowed me to experience two religions and cultures, to both of which I still subscribe today. Even more important, our home was open to a large extended family, with everyone partaking in celebrations that differed from their own. When you think of it, most people lack an appreciation for religious beliefs and celebrations other than their own due to limited exposure or participation.
On Christmas Eve, following Midnight Mass, our family opened presents, all the presents except for the one that Santa delivered personally after bedtime. In our house, Santa always brought the best present of all. On Christmas Eve, in most houses it is a tradition to leave Santa a snack of cookies and milk. Our house was much the same. But I do recall the year in which there was not a cookie in the house, not a crumb or a chip, not even an animal cracker. "Mom, there are no cookies for Santa," I said. "Let me look," she replied. "Here, use these," she said as she pulled the Manischewitz box from the cupboard. "Here, leave a plate of matzo for Santa." Without a second thought, the accompaniment to Santa's glass of milk that year was his plate of matzo...