The Best Christmas Gift of All

Everybody knows I’m Jewish.  But.  I grew up being the only Jew in a world of Christians.  My teenage years were mostly in New England, in Southeast Massachusetts where people really do trace their family lineages back to the Mayflower, the ship that landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620.  I have been to Plymouth Rock and it is a disappointment.  All this hubbub about Plymouth Rock This and Plymouth Rock That, and all it is is a medium size boulder sticking out of the sand, with no distinguishing features save a bronze plaque:The Pilgrims Landed Here.  No mention of the Indians, turkeys, Indian corn, nothing.

With the exception of my parents, I had no other Jews to celebrate Jewish holidays with; and since my parents themselves did not have much exposure to Judaism, we bumbled through the two Jewish holidays we knew about (Hanukah and Passover) by rote: did the things we knew to do, ate the foods we knew to eat, but otherwise did not have any particular understanding of the significance of the festivals.  Since it was only the three of us, none of it lasted very long.

We moved to New England when I was twelve.  The other children were quick to let me know that “their ancestors got off the Mayflower,” meaning, “and you will never belong here or be one of us.”‘

On the other hand, since I had never belonged anywhere anyway, being from another planet etc., I got used to it and poked around to find families that would tolerate me crashing their Christmas traditions.

With the exception of Old England, I doubt there is any place on earth that takes Christmas so seriously as New England.  By “seriously,” I mean Serious Fun.  In those days you could count on two or three feet of snow on the ground and often more coming down, the night turned blue by the refraction of the snow so that the fields looked like vast undulating blue bosoms.

Over these blue bosoms we would tramp on Christmas Eve, freezing in galoshes, boiled-wool pea coats, and hand-knitted hats, gloves, and mittens, the latter so caked with snow from snowball fights that the wet wool threatened frostbitten fingers.

On arrival to our destination we would stand outside the two or three hundred year old clapboarded or shake-shingled house and sing our hearts out: the standards, O Holy Night, O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy To The World, like that.  The family would come to the door , backlit from the roaring Yule log in the great open fireplace.  After grinning through our performance, they would invite us in to warm up around the fire.  Mittens came off and steamed on the hearth while we were immersed in great mugs of hot chocolate floating with marshmallows.  The cookies went ’round, inquiries made after the health of Aunt Bessie, and after we were warm, dry, and refreshed, we said our “thank-you’s” and “Merry Christmases” and set off across the fields to our next destination.

Most families did not put up their tree until Christmas Eve, unlike the current trend that used to begin with after Thanksgiving and now seems to be encroaching on Halloween.  The suspense leading up to that joyous hour when the big Balsam fir (no one used anything else, for the Balsam’s delicious fragrance permeates the house and no potpourri is needed) was hauled upright in the bay window.  There really is no better place for a Christmas tree than a bay window, because there’s plenty of room to move all around the tree to decorate, and the window seats make great places to sit while opening presents.  And of course, anyone happening by gets a spectacular view of the tree!

I don’t know about today’s decorations, but in those days there were two kinds: home-made, and heirlooms.  The home-made kind ranged from little felt Santas, elves, and angels made by first-graders, to paper chains made by us, to popcorn-and-cranberry swags that we made on the spot with a felting needle and a lot of popcorn and fresh cranberries (being New England, where cranberries come from, and all), to gingerbread cookies made of a special recipe that hardens and you wouldn’t want to really eat them but they look great, and of course the candy canes, which we did eat.

Then the box of heirloom decorations was opened, and a hush fell on the room, succeeded by excited exclamations as each precious piece was unveiled from its tissue wrapping, where it had slept, dormant, since last Christmas.

The Star, of course, came out first.  New England Stars are often made of hand-crafted tin with whirly things and tinkly things.  Some of them are lanterns that you put a candle in, if your ceiling is high enough.  Getting it on the tip of the tree involved ladders and gymnastics and usually brothers.

The icicles were of drawn crystal.  Real crystal, that danced with light.

The balls included clear ones with snow scenes inside, and ones with red-cheeked Santa faces hand-painted on, and each one had its own story: who it had belonged to, to whom it had been passed down to, and how it came to be in this box.  There was a reverence to hanging each and every memory, connecting generations, on the fragrant branches.

Nothing was done without a rich egg nog, or a wassail, to cheer along the festivities; and the cookies that were meant for eating came out.  Every year someone made pfefferneuse, those abominable pepper cookies that look deceptively delicious, but taste so evil that one is forced to seek out a discreet trash can to spit them out.  Likewise the obligatory fruit cake, made at least a year ago and packed away soaking in rum.  Does anybody really like fruitcake?  Please.  I want to know.  And please send me your address.

In my experience, fruitcakes are a great gift to receive, because you can pack them up in a different tin and give them right straight to somebody else–just make sure you don’t give it back to the person who made it–which can be a little tricky in a small town like ours.

Now.  New England Brown Bread.  THAT is a horse of a different color.  Who has had it?  It is a moist, molasses-filled cake spiced with cloves and cinnamon, bristling with raisins, baked inside a number-something (I forget, but I think it might be twelve) tin can, in a water bath.  That makes it officially a pudding, I think, according to English culinary nomenclature, but in New England we just call it Brown Bread, and it is the most delicious thing of all, especially eaten warm, splashed with brandy and dolloped with vanilla ice cream or heavy whipped cream (not the kind in a can), or both.  And it is BROWN.  Whenever I have been the lucky recipient of a can of Brown Bread I have never recycled it like I do the fruit cakes, but hoarded it until I could enjoy it properly.

Roll forward many years, and I am in Seattle.  How I got there is another story, but let’s just say I was alone, without family or friends.  I was exploring my Jewish roots at the time, and bit by bit learning the how’s and why’s, but really between the worlds, and terribly lonely and depressed.

As everybody knows, the holidays can turn a normal everyday depression into a catastrophic one, so I did some advance planning and came up with a solution: rather than stay home and entertain myself by running movies in my head about the brilliant and elegant ways I would off myself, I would go to the mission food kitchen and take my mind off my troubles by running my ass off serving meals to people who didn’t have the luxury of a home in which to sit and contemplate suicide.

I showed up on Christmas morning.  Even though dinner wasn’t to be served till noon, the dining room was packed with people holding down their seats, eagerly awaiting one of the few real meals they would get this year.  It was cold outside, too, and of course raining, being Seattle, so they got to wait in a warm, dry place.  My heart opened to all these souls: there but for the grace of God go I.

Tables were set, the dinner gong “went” at noon, and we waiters began to scurry with heavy plates steaming full of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, canned yams, canned green beans, cranberry sauce….there was a bit of confusion when some of the guests decided to “help” with the table-waiting in order to procure seconds for themselves….an announcement was made that seconds would be available after everybody had “firsts,” providing we didn’t run out of food.  Everyone sat down again.

A sudden wave of panic broke out in the kitchen: the cook had fallen ill–now what to do?  I mentioned that I had been a chef some years back, and was instantly drafted and in fact, shoved physically into the huge stainless steel institutional kitchen.

To tell you the truth, it wasn’t a difficult job to fall into, since much of the food was already prepared and just needed to be heated up.  But there was a herd of turkeys sizzling in gigantic ovens, and pots of mashed potatoes that I needed  a ladder to even see into, and such pans of dressing, that needed two people to hoist out of their oven compartments!  And oceans of gravy hot enough to scald to death the unfortunate who fell into the gargantuan pots.

I was very fortunate to have a small army of kitchen assistants who knew what they were doing, so all I had to do was ask questions and do what they said.  In two sweat-drenched hours we fed well over 400 souls.

I helped to serve the pumpkin pie, since by that time there was no further chef-ing to be done.  I could barely make it from one diner to another, due to the fervent hand-squeezings and embraces and blessings from people I would not have previously thought of getting that close to, but somehow, and I think you’ll understand, a blessing from someone who lives in the cold, wet, filthy, dangerous, hungry world of the streets is worth more than a blessing from the Pope.  It is a blessing from a fallen angel.

That Christmas, I felt that (even though I am not a Christian in the conventional sense) if someone had asked Baby Jesus what he wanted for Christmas, he would have said: Take care of the poor, the destitute, the hungry, the sick, the outcast, the prostituted.  This is what I want for my birthday….for Christmas!

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25 Comments

  1. Beautiful post. Thank you so much for the many riches in this gift that you shared with us today.

    Reply
  2. I nodded my head while reading, as I am also Jewish, and also grew up in New England in a town that had a handful of other Jews..I had many Christmas experiences similar to yours….we have a lot in common! Thank you for sharing, especially your chef-ing story at the end. It truly embodies what this season should be about.

    Reply
    • Janet, I didn’t know you were (are) Tribe! And from NE too. Glad you had a few others in town. I was the only Christ-killing baby-eater in any of the many towns I lived in when I was growing up. And yup, those were some of the nice things I was called. Ah well. There were many good times there too, many precious friends who did not care if I had horns on my head (in grade school kids used to ask if they could feel my horns–no lie!) Glad you enjoyed the story!

      Reply
  3. Yep. That’s what He would say, but He would remind us to do it 24/7/365.

    Good post, as always. You are so entertaining, whether the post is humorous, serious, scary or sad. Get that book published!! Or that series of books!! I can’t wait!! 😀

    Reply
    • Well you gotta give him a break, it was only his first day 😉 Thank you so much…I’m thinking of putting together a “Best of 2013” and publishing it as an e-book on Amazon, etc.–what do you think?

      Reply
      • Gosh, I think that’d be great!!

        I still want you to get an agent, an editor and a solid publishing house so you can publish it all!! Laura, you’ve got many readers here who support you and many who hear your voice. Think how many are awaiting your voice in the rest of the world. God’s blessed you with many gifts and talents. I think this is one you have to put out there for all to see and by seeing, by reading, by hearing, be blessed by God through you as they realize they’re not alone and they can survive, too!!

        Whatever you choose, I’ll support you always!!

        Love,
        Kathy

        P.S. I finally “got” Mad Pride!! I even made it into a page. (The logo’s photo wouldn’t fit in my sidebar no matter what I did, so I made a page out of it. That’s when I found out I had quite a bit to say about it.)

        Reply
        • Thank you so much for your support and kind words of encouragement. Wanna be my agent??? I have to go see what you’ve done with Mad Pride 🙂

          Reply
          • Actually I’m not entirely kidding, Kathy. I have no idea what readers would want to see, in a collection, say. If you have time, would you be willing to go over (some of, for heaven’s sake I’ve got more than 200!!) my posts and pull out a few that really strike you as things other people might want to see? If you have time (and want to), you could email me the links at dinaleah@hotmail.com Let me know! I don’t want to impose upon you.

            Reply
  4. I was glued to this from beginning to end. LOL–I envy you that you are related in some way to Jesus. To have inspired such a holiday! You display more Christian-type love and sacrifice than anyone else I know. What a great person you are….Merry Christmas in the best sense of the word.

    Reply
    • Thank you, sweetheart–coming from you that is a very high compliment indeed. Since Jesus was Jewish, and very well educated in Torah, he helped the world out by spreading Jewish wisdom in a different book cover. I live in a very Christian (Baptist) area, and people are always asking me why I don’t take Jesus as my personal savior. I tell them, because Jews have been commanded to do our own work in the world, just as Christians have been commanded to do YOUR own work in the world. Now if everybody would quit p*ssing around and just DO their jobs, the world would be perfected and we could all have that big party the prophets keep telling us about. And as far as who the Messiah is (really), I don’t care if his name tag says, “Hello, my name is Jesus” or “Hello, my name is Elijah,” or whatever, just as long as he GETS here (and brings his wife and kids).

      Reply
  5. That was about the best Christmas story ever. Thanks so much for posting that. I actually gave a homeless man some money today on my way to take some soup and dessert to a friend who had surgery a couple of days ago. But that doesn’t compare to feeding 400. I guess we all do what we can and if more did what you did the world would be a much better place.

    Reply
    • To be honest, I just went there with the intention of serving some people who had it much, much worse than myself, so I could get my mind out of self-pity land. I had no intention of being the cook! God works in unfathomable ways. I think that having the intention of giving to those in need brings down loads of blessings. Giving
      money to a hungry person, without
      questioning what he is going to use
      the money for, is a huge blessing
      both for the other person and for
      you. Visiting a sick person and bring them food?? Cha-ching in the blessing department! As we say in Hebrew, “May you continue to merit to do good works and acts of kindness.”

      Reply
  6. Beautiful true story told with the much loved Laura-flair. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  7. WOW! Laura, I am not jewish but we could be soul-friends. I have been blogging and posted about Ms. Mary M. No Stones should ever live here. Just genuine words you write. Much inspiring. 🙂

    Reply
    • Thank you, Holly! I SO wish that I could get together with you, and all my “bloggie” friends, for an afternoon or evening and get to know one another in person. I will look for your post about MM. You may be aware that there is mounting evidence that she was actually Jesus’ wife. That makes sense, because Jesus was a very high-level rabbi, according to my teacher Avraham Sutton, http://dev.avrahamsutton.com/ and rabbis are obligated to be married. So much for celibacy among the clergy, eh? And there is deep historical precedent for a high-level rabbi marrying a prostituted woman: Shimon (Simon) married his sister Dina after she was abducted and raped by Shchem. Yeah, back in those days the prohibition on marrying siblings was not yet in force, and it happened frequently. Shimon married Dina largely to protect her from the rest of society, and it would follow that Jesus would have done the same. Although they were not genetically related (or at least that’s not known), they were certainly soul-mates. In his new book (you can see it and order it on his website), Rabbi Sutton goes into Jesus’ Jewishness and the REAL story very deeply. It’s a wonderful book that any seeker should own.

      Reply
  8. Great post!

    I also grew up in Southeast Mass. My dad was Jewish and my mom was Catholic, so my sister and I were brought up as Unitarian.

    Reply

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