December is a big month in my house. For starters, my mom is Jewish and my dad is Christian, so we get the double whammy of both Chanukah and Christmas. But the fun doesn’t stop there. My sister’s birthday is on the 13th, mine is on the 27th, and then it all wraps up with New Year’s Eve (in my house, an hors d’oeuvres feast the likes of which the world has never seen). You’d be hard-pressed to find a more festive family between Thanksgiving and January 1st. Especially on the years when Chanukah is neatly nestled mid-month, December in the Harlan house is a non-stop marathon of holiday cheer.
Growing up, my parents were holiday purists. Despite our crazy mishmosh of festivities, they did their best to give each occasion its due and to maintain some semblance of separation between them, even if it was just a matter of putting the menorahs in the dining room while the Christmas tree twinkled two feet away in the den. Birthday presents were never combined with holidays. You had to take your Santa hat off before eating your latkes. And we developed many, many, traditions that put their own definitive spin on each festive occasion.
“A long, long time ago, before baseball and Cheerios, the Jews they lived in a land of peace; their leader was Mr. Mattathias…” As Chanukah celebrations go, ours is pretty traditional (aside from the odd rap). We light the menorahs, one per family member, so by night six or seven my father feels compelled to break out the fire extinguisher, lest our house be engulfed in a blessed inferno. Each family member has their own personal chanukiah. My mom has the classic, the one my grandparents gave her and my dad when they were first married (pictured above). As the papa, my dad takes the “Fiddler on the Roof” music box, which has long since lost its music (and one of Tevye’s arms). My brother and sister’s are handcrafted, painted and hot glued together in some long ago Sunday School class out of a piece of wood or, in a pun appreciated best by the Hillel set, a hammer. For years I lit a traditional brass number given to me for my bat mitzvah, until one year my mother excitedly presented me with a box from the Temple gift shop. Inside was the most beautiful menorah I had ever seen, all crafted out of shoes. My shamas rests on a slingback, the ankle straps and stilettos glow in the candlelight, and after a hearty chorus of “Rock of Ages” we adjourn to the kitchen for latkes and applesauce (sour cream is for suckers).
We have a strict rule in my house: Christmas does not begin until after Thanksgiving. Nary a carol shall pass our lips until the fourth Friday in November. But as soon as the turkey gumbo has been slurped up, a family trek is made to the basement, bringing up boxes of decorations, CDs, Santa hats, homemade (personalized) songbooks, and, of course, ornaments. We moved a lot when I was a child, and so the boxes, designated “Christmas” by scraps of wrapping paper taped haphazardly to one side, are a sort of “Zelda, This Is Your Life” retrospective of all our past homes, with cardboard numbers from California, Kansas, and Tennessee being repurposed to hold porcelain carolers and antler headbands. Once the boxes are upstairs, we can begin decking out the halls (and the tree, but that’s its own story). The jingle bell wreaths go on the back and garage doors, the snowman piñata my dad picked up at a day after Christmas sale (much to my mother’s chagrin) goes on a speaker in the den, and the CD changer gets steadily filled up with holiday tunes.
Now Christmas Eve in my house requires four things: stockings, storytime, carrots, and ham. Allow me to explain. As is traditional, the stockings are hung by the chimney with care, in descending order of age. Dinner is a delicious feast of honey-baked goodness, usually followed by something chocolate (although Christmas Eve dinner is really a preamble to the main event on Christmas Day, when my mom pulls out all the stops: dill rolls, standing rib roast, and my personal favorite — individual raspberry souffles). Before he leaves to sing at services, my dad reads “Twas the Night Before Christmas” (unless my grandma is in town or it’s one of the years when we spend Christmas in New Hampshire with the whole extended clan, in which she does the honors with an ancient copy lovingly preserved from her own childhood). And finally we set out cookies and Lactaid for Santa (in our house, he’s lactose intolerant), and we always add a few carrots, because reindeer need snacks, too.
Erev Christmas may also include a viewing of our favorite holiday flick, “White Christmas,” during which we all sing along and my parents reminisce about how cute my sister and I were when we used to reenact the famous “Sisters” number as tiny tots. This may be followed by the Grinch or the timelesss classic, Disney’s Very Merry Christmas Songs. Santa has a bedtime, so by 9 or 10 the kids are banished to the upstairs, where these days we usually end up on my bed watching a Christmas episode of “Gilmore Girls” or “Friends.” And before we go to sleep there is the traditional heated debate on when we will rise the next morning, which thankfully has transitioned from the 7 a.m. of our childhood to a much more civilized 9 or 10.
Finally, the day arrives. We rise at the predetermined hour, rubbing sleep from eyes and yelling at my mom when she insists on brushing her teeth before making the trek downstairs. Even though the Santa myth went out the window many moons ago, there’s still something magic about creeping down the stairs and peering through the sliding den doors to see plump stockings all in a row. Santa does not wrap his gifts, merely affixes gift tags, and so those get fussed over first, followed by the stockings. Only once each member of the family has completely emptied his or her stocking, down the orange in the toe, can the present opening commence. My parents sit regally in their armchairs by the fireplace while my siblings and I alternate between fetching them gifts and ripping open our own. And finally, once every bag is emptied and the floor is strewn with shiny paper, we decamp to the kitchen for my mom’s make-ahead breakfast casserole and a lazy day of new toys and no real pants. Because that, kids, is what Christmas is really about: 24-hour pajamas.
This year is going to be a little different. For the first time ever, I will spend Christmas day on two very early planes and then at the office, where, sadly, I will be required to put on pants. We tried telling the news to take the day off, just give everyone a day of peace on earth, but unfortunately they did not oblige. So while Monday will see me flying home for one last night of Chanukah, an early Christmas, and an even earlier birthday, the actual day will be spent in airports with strangers and copy editing with my co-workers. I could complain (and believe me, I have). I could mope and cry (again, been there, done that, sometimes on the subway, you can ask Scout). But instead, I’m trying to be grateful. I’m grateful that I’ll get 48 hours with my family, even if I want longer. I’m grateful for the lovely humans who work at the airports and fly the planes on Christmas Day, and that I could afford tickets for such a brief visit. And I’m grateful for my surrogate family, for my roommate and my college bestie and Scout and her mom, all of whom have offered to adopt me for the lonely hours when I find myself in Brooklyn instead of happily ensconced on my couch. I know Thanksgiving is traditionally the day of giving, well, thanks, but Christmas is a day of giving, too. And even if I only get to spend five hours of it with the ones I love most, five hours is more than a lot of people get.