A Child's Christmas in Queens
by Rob Fried
Jewish though we were, even as children Christmas carried lots of mystique in our house. The whole thing began, I suppose, when our sister, Brucia, who was eight years older than me, lost her mom to tuberculosis. In the interim, before my father remarried our mom Cele, Dad allowed Brucia to decorate a Christmas tree. We were living upstate, in Wallkill, New York at the time.
Brucia had a best friend, Lexie Goldman, who had a terrific imagination. She enchanted us with her stories. She showed us a blue mark beneath the skin on her left hand which, she claimed, was proof that she was a Queen of the Gypsies. We believed her unquestioningly. She made up stories about four notorious sisters “A,” “B,” “C” and “D,” short for Apoplexia, Bubonica, Cataclysma, and Disastrica.” Everything these girls touched turned to calamity. A walk to the playground ended up in scenes of little kids being catapulted off a see-saw and sent flying into the middle of a duck pond where they had to be rescued by the fire department. Other excursions—to school (where they set lab mice free in the library), or to the hospital (where they assisted patients by changing their medicines that had them flying madly around the ward)—were equally outrageous. The idea of innocent mischief was captivating. Lexie would let us set the scene: a birthday party, a trip to the grocery store, a visit to a crotchety aunt’s parlor filled with antique china, or a school trip to the zoo, and, right on the spot, she would invent the most deliciously wicked happenings that the A-B-C-and-D girls would unwittingly cause to happen. We couldn’t get enough of it. Together, Lexie and Brucia wove their collective imaginations into our childhood vision of Christmas.
Although Brucia greatly respected and came to love our mom (her step-mom), who had been raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, she still wanted to celebrate Christmas. And we Fried boys were cheering her on. While we lived up in Wallkill, our Mom had not much objection to Brucia’s putting up a Christmas tree (usually a scrawny cedar from our back woods) and decorating it with little ornaments that she had made and gathered. Brucia (then about fourteen) would have us collect our spare pennies and nickels in an empty box and use them to buy tinsel, the old-fashioned crinkly lead variety. Humble as the tree was, Marc and I were enchanted. Brucia let us help her make ornaments and put them up. Mom and Dad even put a few Christmas presents for us under the tree.
But once we moved to Sunnyside in 1948, the whole Christmas affair became more complicated. After all, Mom’s religious father Isaac lived close by in Brooklyn, and when Brucia went off to college in Chicago in 1950, it was up to us two older boys, Marc, then aged six and me, Robby, aged eight to keep the home fires burning. Dicky, our baby brother watched. To Mom’s thinking, when Brucia left for college, she took Christmas with her, and good riddance! But no, Christmas had crept into our souls.
Christmas—as a mystical, somehow even naughty event in a house of more or less secular Jews—remained in our young hearts. “Christmas” was a word to frighten Grandpa with. He, the Orthodox one, and our only living grandparent, embodied for us kids the very opposite of Christmas. As such, we imagined him particularly vulnerable to it. We believed, in the way kids can believe something they know isn’t really true, that if somebody approached Grandpa on the street and whispered “Christmas” into his ear, he might well melt into a heap, like the witch in the Wizard of Oz.
Our parents continued to give us presents at Christmas. At first, they tried to link it all to Hanukkah. But we kids weren’t fooled. Hanukkah can’t hold a candle to Christmas in wonder and pageantry. Pathetic little trees, dipped in blue paint and christened “Hanukkah bushes”? Ridiculous! We would keep our Hanukkah presents unopened until Christmas Eve, then trundle them out and place them under whatever we could pretend was a Christmas tree.
The year Brucia left, Marc and I pooled our allowance and went out on our own one evening to buy a Christmas tree from the Jewish greengrocer around the corner on Skillman Avenue, near 46th street. Mr. Borchansky eyed us balefully.
“We want a . . . tree,” we said. “All we got is fifty cents.”
“A Christmas tree? For you? For what do you need a Christmas tree for—nice Jewish boys, who come from a good Jewish home?”
“Can we . . . please buy one of your . . . trees? we stuttered.
For a long while, Borchansky just stood there. Then with excruciating slowness, and exhibiting that painful ambiguity in which his cultural reluctance clashed with his entrepreneurial penchant, he moved down the row of trees he had stocked for his Christian customers.
“Here,” he said, fingering a scrawny fir. “You take that one, if you are sure your mother doesn’t got no objection.”
It was sparse, definitely the runt of the litter, but we weren’t in a position to argue. We took possession of our tree while Borchansky fingered our two quarters and shuffled back into his store. We walked home, two happy criminals.
That’s when the real fun began. Mom did not want a Christmas tree in the house. What would Grandpa think, if he were to drop in unexpectedly? (He never did, it was we who always went to his house.) We had never before defied her quite so brazenly. I think Dad admired our moxie. After much pleading, and with some bemused prodding by Dad, she allowed us to take the tree upstairs to the hallway outside our bedrooms. We did our best to decorate it, a la Brucia, but without her exquisiteness. At least we had our tree.
Eventually, our parents gave up the Hanukkah pretense and gave us our presents on December 25th. But they were always badly wrapped, in paper as un-Christmasy as could be—stripes of orange and brown, or yellow flowers on a purple background. They must have found a store that specialized in wrapping paper for Jews who were caving in to the dominant culture. If the present didn’t come in a box already, no box was ever found for it, so many of the presents had a distinctly lumpy look to them.
In truth, our parents’ wrapping eccentricities was part of the fun. They did look unlovely, but we expected them to look unlovely. And they only made the gifts we got through the mail from Brucia even more splendid. These, by contrast, were very Christmasy, with wonderful matching colors and unique designs and surprise ways of opening them and—wonder of wonders!—wrappings inside of wrappings! Sometimes they had pictures of strange animals and exotic birds, cut out of glossy magazines and pasted onto the wrapping paper. We were fascinated by their intricacy and beauty.
We did celebrate Hanukkah, after a fashion. We had fun lighting the menorah candles and dripping wax on everything. Mom gave us little presents, like chocolate coins inside golden foil that clung so tightly to the chocolate that we, with our little hands, had to eat them out of their foils. We spun dreidels and gambled for pennies. But we were never fooled. Christmas ruled.
It’s not that we held a prejudice against holidays for Jews. Passover can give Easter a real run for its money any year. And there’s nothing to compete with Yom Kippur, with our attempts at fasting and our visits to the ancient orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn where Grandpa was vice president and had his name chiseled in marble near the big temple door. We were fascinated by the old men in yellowed tasseled shawls, swaying and praying. Then we all went to dinner in their apartment, where the whole building smelled of matzo balls and chicken soup (this is not an exaggeration). But Christmas was Christmas, and it never had any competition in our house from the Menorah contingent. We knew there was more than a dreidel’s worth of difference between them.
That tree from Borchansky’s initiated a series of Christmas rituals in our family that lasted until we left home. There were the ones everybody else has, you know, wrapping up a small present in one box and re-wrapping that box in others, until you’ve got a big carton with one tiny present in it. And then there was the sacrament of the Yuletide-Lamp-Base-Exchange. A hand-made ceramic lamp base had been given to our parents by a family friend, an amateur potter. It was the ugliest thing ever to slip out of a kiln—squat, ungraceful, with deep ruts grooved into its surface that looked like inverted varicose veins, all of it embellished in garish turquoise and yellow glaze. Everyone agreed it was the most unsightly thing, and so the base never got a lamp to honor it but was placed in a dusty corner, the kind of object your eye always alights on when you go looking for something but momentarily forget what. So, of course, one of us (usually me) would sneak off with it a few weeks before Christmas and wrap it up for someone. Christmas wasn’t complete without it.
Then, of course, there were presents for Fluffy, our foundling collie-colored dog, and the King Solomon of our household. One of us would always wrap up a dog biscuit in ribbon and hang it high enough so that Fluffy couldn’t reach it. And there was the year that I wrapped up a dollar bill with Fluffy’s name on the tag, an invitation for him to buy whatever pleased him.
Even during our early teenage years, amid rivalry and enmity between Marc and me, the spirit of Christmas hung in there, if only by a tinsel strand. We honored it, minimally, even when we had little else to appreciate about one another. For a few years our gift-giving had all the spontaneity of a bus schedule. One year—we both remember it—our distrust was such that we walked up to McCrory’s five and dime on Queens Boulevard to shop for each other’s present. Each picked out a leather belt for $1.75 and handed it to the other to purchase—Surprise! Then we went home and each watched the other wrap his gift, so we could make sure no one got cheated on the paper-and-ribbon end of the deal. Marc had a habit of reusing paper squirreled away from Christmas past, scotch-taping together wrinkly bits. I wanted to make sure he wasn’t wrapping my belt in the cheap stuff. For my part, I would try to get by with using one thin sheet of green tissue paper, so thin you could see the belt through it, coiled like a baby snake in its translucent eggshell.
Christmas that year held Marc and me together with only the thinnest thread of civility. But we three boys were still connected, especially during our post-Yule flea market and accounting ritual. First, we tried to sell to each other whatever gifts we’d got that we didn’t want. We each took a notepad and sat, back to the wall, calculating the cost of presents each had purchased for others as against the real value—to oneself—of the presents received (how much you’d be willing to pay, out of pocket, for that item). Thus, a sweater from an aunt, made of rough, scratchy wool, might be true-valued at one penny (the minimum value allowed), compared to a cheap china vase one of us had bought for Mom at seventy-nine cents Which left you seventy-eight cents in the red. We knew, as we conducted the audit, that there was something scurrilous about the process, but that was what made it fun. It lent a sort of Jewish coup de grace to Christmas spirit.
Rob Fried grew up in Sunnyside and attended all the local schools. He went on to earn a Master's in English and a Doctorate in Education, eventually settling into a career in Education Reform. Now retired, he and his wife live in Concord, NH, and visit their two sons and grandson, Milo, in Massachusetts. Rob has published five books on education (as Robert L. Fried) and two unpublished novels.