On Christmas morning, we would go down to the living room where the presents were piled on the floor. I was scared I'd get up in the middle of the night and run into Santa Claus. My sister was scared of Santa, period. One day my mother sat us down at the kitchen table and told us there was no Santa. Linda was still scared of him (to this day, I think).
One year there were bicycles waiting in the living room. We had just moved into the house on Birch Street, and we rode them around downstairs on the still uncarpeted floor. The family came over later in the day. This was the family on my mother's side, since my father's relatives all lived in Canada.
Hanukkah wasn't completely forgotten. We had an antique menorah, but it was complicated and required oil so we usually didn't light it. And we never got 8 separate days of presents.
I'd get into the mood for the season as Christmas-themed commercials started showing up on TV. I remember one for Norelco with "floating heads" to the tune of "Jingle Bells." I had a piano book of Christmas carols and played them for the occasion.
Even though Great Neck was something like 90% Jewish, Christmas found its way into school. In a memorable sixth grade holiday concert, I played the flute (badly - I was MUCH better at the piano) in the special reed Christmas carol ensemble, then played with the orchestra, played a few songs with the band, ducked out to change into my satiny white and gold majorette uniform, and performed with the twirlers. "My God, she's in EVERYTHING," hissed our neighbor Mrs. W, sitting in back of my kvelling parents.
This all came to a halt senior year of high school. We were going to Israel over Christmas vacation, and there was no time for shopping or anything else holiday-related. This turned out to be a huge relief, and made the season so easy that from then on we didn't celebrate at all - Christmas, Hanukkah, nothing. My sister's family now celebrates Hanukkah, but they know eccentric Auntie En isn't good with holidays and presents. I buy random gifts when I see something they might like.
I was a bit annoyed about this Israel trip since it meant I'd miss out on holiday doings with my friends (spoiled brat!). There was a huge Sour 17 party planned at M's house which I would miss (I went to the Eggplant 18 party the following year - a horrible night to be recapped in the old diary in January). I especially wanted to see the people a year ahead who were away at college. In early December, E and P had driven me up to Cambridge for my Radcliffe interview (ultimately leading to rejection). The girls stayed in K's dorm and P stayed with M and P2, and we had a fantastic time visiting others we knew, including the current president of CBS News.
This was 1968, and things were tense in Israel. You never felt completely safe, and there was a distinct presence of soldiers with guns. People around Hebron and Bethlehem looked downright hostile. There were threats of Christmas day violence. In Tel Aviv, we visited Dr. M and felt more at home. Riding down in the elevator of the Tel Aviv Hilton one day, the door opened and K walked in. WHAT??? We giggled hysterically the whole way down. It turned out she was there with her family for vacation, too. We had been corresponding and I don't know why she left out that fact, but there she was. My family spent some time with her family, for an oasis of Great Neck in a foreign land. I think my friend N happened to be staying in the hotel, too (I have written to her to make sure I'm not hallucinating; my sister remembers none of this).
Fast-forward to 1979. My friend Phyllis taught at Bronx Psychiatric Hospital and got a bunch of us to participate in the Holiday Hospital Project on Christmas day. Through this organization, people fanned out all over the city visiting institutions and distributing gifts. Earlier in December, we went to a gift-wrapping party for the entire project, sitting at long tables in a hotel ballroom wrapping hundreds of donated gifts. When we were done working, the Christmas music gave way to disco and I found myself dancing with a total stranger named Paul. He immediately told me his girlfriend was coming to town soon, but this was fine since I just wanted to dance.
Early Christmas morning, we boarded a yellow school bus in Manhattan for the trip up to the Bronx. There were a few other friends of Phyllis I knew, along with strangers from the Project including dancing Paul! When we got to the hospital, it immediately hit me, "Oh wait, this is a MENTAL hospital." We gathered first in a classroom for coffee and breakfast, where I had what turned out to be my last caffeine ever (knowingly, anyway - I drank A&W diet cream soda until I noticed it said "now with caffeine!" on the can. They got a nasty letter from me, and responded that consumers WANTED caffeine).
Then it was up to the wards. We split up into 3 groups and a-caroling we went. The place was unnaturally hot, even for December. Doors had to be constantly unlocked and locked. Despite the holiday cheeriness and decorations, it was scary to me. We gamely belted out carols and distributed gifts to individual patients, saying "Merry Christmas." They looked drugged and strange. I was beginning to feel a little more comfortable, when during one enthusiastic rendition of "Deck the Halls" I felt a hand... I was being goosed by a mental patient! Aarrggghh. Luckily Paul was by my side and he and his friend Matthew stood behind me the rest of the morning.
We arrived back at the classroom having done our assigned wards, and it was still early. We were told we could go to MORE wards and the others enthusiastically agreed - I, however, was thinking, "NOOOOO, not MORE of this!" We made it through, though, and it did feel good to give. The atmosphere made me resolve that no matter how crazy I got, I was NEVER going to end up in a place like that.
Waiting for the others to come back to board the bus, Matthew asked if I was doing anything for the holiday. "What holiday? I'm Jewish." He invited me to go with him and Paul to his aunt's place nearby in the Bronx. Why not? So I spent Christmas afternoon with Paul, Matthew, Matthew's aunt, and her friend (or maybe it was another relative) in a cheery Bronx apartment. They even managed to wrap a present for me of some perfume. We had a huge meal, and then played charades. Paul and Matthew were both struggling actors, and talked of their plans to move to California. We took the train back to Manhattan.
I never saw those guys again. I checked IMDB and Matthew has 2 minor listings in 1981 and 1 in 1991, so I guess the acting thing didn't quite pan out. I don't even remember Paul's last name, but chances are he never became famous either.
I wonder if they will see "Wordplay" and think back to that lovely Christmas afternoon. I would love to send this link to Phyllis, but she died of leukemia 6 years ago.