47. A Burning Issue

47. A Burning Issue

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters

A Burning Issue

I once wanted to become an atheist but I gave up… they have no holidays.

~Henny Youngman

My family is Jewish. These days, many Jewish families have given in to the Christmas juggernaut by putting up Christmas trees. But when I was growing up, we weren’t one of them. For a while we had a six-inch toy tree that my siblings and I attempted to decorate. But we were forced to hide it when my grandfather showed up, so it never really felt right. Besides, it could only hold about two Froot Loop garlands anyway.

Yes, we had Hanukah, but the truth is Hanukah is a very minor holiday in the Jewish religion. Just because it falls in December, it’s gotten puffed up to compete with Christmas. But who are we kidding? It will never equal Christmas. How could it? Come December, the world goes Santa Claus crazy. We are deluged with images of the wonder and the glory and the letters to Santa and the many, many presents. Menorahs, potato pancakes and dreidels are fun, but they are no match for Christmas. Any attempt to make them so feels just creepy and sad. Like when we sang in the school choir and the choirmaster threw in “O Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel” as a blatant sop to the Jewish kids. It was so pathetic; we wished he had just skipped it altogether.

For the most part, playing second fiddle to Christmas didn’t really bother my brother, two sisters and me when we were growing up. We knew who we were and we were proud of it. Pining for Christmas would be like a giraffe wanting the elephant’s trunk. Sure it was cool, but really, what did it have to do with us? In fact, it was sort of nice to relax outside the holiday hysteria.

But we were just kids and it took us a while to get to this place. As little kids, for a while Christmas looked good. Really good. One year, when we were ten, eight, six and four, respectively, we did a full frontal push on our parents. “Just once? Puhhhleeeeeeeeez?”

Finally, they gave in—with one caveat. No tree. The little toy tree would have to do. “Sure, whatever,” we said. We placed it in front of the fireplace where everyone could trip on it, and the dog could eat the Froot Loops.

Christmas Eve, we went to bed extra early at 8 p.m. Around 3 a.m., we snuck downstairs for a look, and oh! There they were! Piles of presents in four rows, one row for each kid. With ribbons and bows and fancy, unwrinkled paper that hadn’t been saved from a previous gift! We just about collapsed. We went back to bed but rousted our parents around 6 a.m.

There was an explosion of energy as we ripped packages open and squealed with delight. But afterwards, a slight, slumping sadness set in. Was that it? All that build-up and it’s over in five minutes? Trying to revive the momentum, we instructed our father, “You have to light the wrapping paper in the fireplace! That’s part of it!”

Rolling his eyes, Dad threw the brightly colored paper in and lit it. But groggy at the early hour, he forgot to open the flue. A huge flame shot out and up, setting the mantelpiece on fire. We gawked for two seconds, then my mother grabbed my brother and me, my father grabbed my two sisters and we all ran out the front door into the frigid air. They dumped us, dressed only in our footie pajamas, into the snow, and ran back in to deal with the flames. We looked at each other in shock, all with one thought in our minds: Talk about your burning bushes! Clearly, God had spoken.

I can’t remember if the firemen were called or if my parents managed to snuff it out themselves. But I do remember what came next. My father came stamping out into the snow to tell us it was okay to go back in. As we guiltily marched behind him, he turned to say, quite evenly, “See? This is what happens when Jews do Christmas!”

We never said another word about it.

~Beth Levine

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