A Jew on Christmas Eve

This post comes at the request of a friend. Once he heard that my birthday was Christmas Eve, and realizing that I am Jewish, he wanted to know how that worked growing up. It is pretty simple, as I explained: I never suffered. As an only child and an only grandchild for many years – on both sides, no less, with Jewish grandmothers not a ten minute drive away – I really, really never suffered.

I went to a Jewish school, so yes, I was reprimanded for having “Christmas parties” and even as an eight year old, I was happy to tell Rabbi What’s-His-Face to stuff it and stay out of my business. It was not my fault that my birthday coincided with that of Jesus, and as such, I’d have a party whenever it suited me. (Well, whenever it suited my mother.) We never had a tree, or lights, or candy canes. Although we did have a next door neighbor for a brief while that had a tree and candy canes. Even though they moved when I was about 6 or 7, as a recipient of said candy canes, I remember them. Well, the candy canes are really all I remember… Then we got new neighbors, who I still talk to, but they too were Jewish, so no tree there.  Did I miss having a tree and lights? Nope. It wasn’t how we rolled. Instead when Hanukkah came around, my mother made more potato latkes than an army might consume, and yet, we managed to make our way through them quite nicely. (Incidentally, there seems to be a debate as to the appropriate potato pancake condiment  – sour cream or apple sauce, and I am here to tell you that it is no contest. Apple sauce. Never tried it? Go ahead. You’ll thank me. But it’s got to be homemade. None of that store bought junk.)

We had no Christmas ham, but we did have cakes shaped like dreidels (the little top that you spin on Hanukkah). We had no house decorations, we had a menorah in the living room, and an electric one in the window, just in case someone missed the memo that we were, in fact, Jewish. People often ask me what it is like to have my birthday on Christmas, and the truth is, I have no idea. It has always been that way, so I have never had the opportunity to explore other possibilities.

There are some distinct advantages:

1. As an adult, I never have to work on my birthday. (It happened once that I worked for a company open on Christmas Eve. I called in sick.)

2. People are always feeling festive, so when we make plans everyone is already in a good mood. (The downside is that some people actually have Christmas plans, so it is a bit difficult to schedule birthday festivities.)

3. Hanukkah gifts, birthday gifts and the occasional Christmas gift. They are never all rolled into one (note the part about being an only child, etc, above.)

One thing that many Jews do on Christmas is go to the movies and eat Chinese food (a tradition started when they were the only places open.) That was not usually the case in my house, you see, because although we did enjoy a good wonton soup now and then, I was raised by a food snob. (She was a foodie long before the term was coined. She bought mesclun lettuce back when it was $25/pound. She thrives on finding fancy fresh mushrooms. She called me just a couple of weeks ago, exclaiming loudly, that “Costco has Fresh. Chantrelle. Mushrooms. And they are only $10/pound.” Naturally I went and bought several pounds. Sorry, I was getting excited just thinking about the mushrooms…) As I was saying, I was raised by someone who is always thinking about food, so it is fairly obvious where I get it from. She planned ahead for my birthday, knowing that many places were closed.

I remember one year, we were to go to the long-since-closed Il Tulipano in North Miami. We hopped in the car and drove over, only to find it completely dark and empty. Despite our reservation, they were closed. We ended up at some crappy steak house (which my parents later told me was really expensive, despite the crappiness) and the waitress spilled hot coffee all over my father, a particularly bad offense when the person covered in coffee doesn’t even like the beverage. It was not a stellar birthday meal. But that is what happens when your birthday is Christmas Eve, and most restaurants are closed. This year we celebrated with friends and a spectacular meal at Azur, on my Birthday Eve (that would be December 23), and at a friend’s Christmas party on the 24th.

So there you go, there are also some distinct disadvantages:

1. Lack of choices in dining. (In Key West these days many places are open. It’s a tourist town, after all.)

2. Birthday cards are sneakily disguised as Christmas cards.

Of course, I also think that my birthday, and by default, Christmas, are warm weather holidays. As a native Floridian, I just do not dream of a white birthday, er, Christmas. Overall, I kind of like having a birthday on Christmas. Everyone remembers it. Most people have some time off, so I can celebrate properly (for weeks on end.) Most of all, being born Jewish on Christmas Eve really is not as big of a deal as one might expect.