Growing up Jewish in a world that celebrates Christmas in a myriad of ways – in song, in lights, in trees, and in gift-giving – can be torture. It generates a terrible yearning for things verboten like belting out three verses of Joy to the World or artfully draping tinsel on the tree you wrestled into a corner of the living room.
When I married, my husband sheepishly suggested we get a Chanukah bush. Pine tree-envy, I call it and pointed out, you either are or you aren’t Christian. My answer was no.
In 1975, we moved into a new house and met our neighbour, Georgi, when she sent her eight-year old son across the street with a care package on our first day in our new home. Food became part of the cement that would seal our friendship over the decades.
A few years later, Georgi invited us to join her and her two boys along for Christmas Eve dinner. There’ll be about ten of us, she said. Can I bring anything, I asked? She handed me a recipe for broccoli baked in phyllo dough and thus, started me down the slippery slope to celebrating Christmas.
The evening was delightful. We loaded up on cocktails, and then enacted the Christmas play by donning bathrobes and kaftans to become shepherds and wise men. We wrapped a reluctant Noxa, the Siamese cat, in swaddling clothes (read: towel) as the baby Jesus. Georgi took the plum role of mother Mary while ten-year-old Bert not only played the role of Joseph but banged out carols on the upright piano in the hall. We lustily raised our voices although most of these died out as we neared the second verse. Except for my husband and me. To everyone’s amazement, the two Jews stepped up to the plate, rolling with ease right into the second, then third verses of Deck the Halls. The Christians madly flipped through pages to keep up.
That was the first in an 18-year tradition. Every September, Georgi and I would begin to pore over her recipe book, planning and dividing up the cooking of the meal which became ever more exotic. One year, with three vegetarian guests we cooked sole en papillote, drinking whatever champagne wasn’t going into the dish. I think the dish turned out, but I have no memory of it. Another year, sans vegetarians, we roasted a young turkey stuffed with pistachio and dates. Yum.
Our crowning glory, still talked about today, was the three duck dinner, each one made with a different recipe. At the last minute, however, the vegetarians decided to attend. But the fowls triumphed because, despite a healthy choice of other dishes, vegetarianism was abandoned for a taste of Crispy Roast Duck with Blueberry.
Over the years, the boys grew up, friends moved away, and the guest list changed, making room for my friends to be invited as well. Then one Christmas, I looked at the assembled in their crepe paper hats devouring Georgi’s flamed Christmas pudding and realized that there were more Jews than Christians at the table. It had become a ‘Jews for Jesus’ Christmas. Joy to the world.
Gina Roitman, author of Tell Me a Story, Tell Me the Truth, still doesn’t have a Christmas tree. But she joyfully shares preparation of a multi-denominational feast with her partner in order to keep the tradition alive.