Being Jewish and not Christian, Christmas is not my holiday. Religiously speaking, that is.
But December 25 has always been an important day of the year for me. As far back as I can remember and up to age 17, Christmas was a day when my family would be together, opening presents (yes, we crossed the line), eating well, and spending time with friends. To this day, I can hear my father say, “Let’s drop in on the Hodgkins”—unless they, or the Bourdans, or the Hills from Rutland, beat us to the punch, bringing Christmas spirits to our house that afternoon,
Christmas changed for me in 1957, when I was 18. Around midnight Christmas Eve, my father wasn’t feeling well. I drove him to the Claremont General Hospital, where the doctor, the Bourdan’s son Heath, decided he should spend the night “just as a precaution.” A few hours later, the phone rang, and I heard my sister cry out.
That was 63 years ago, but every year on December 25 I wake up at 6:15 in the morning, the time when the phone rang that day. My sister, now 85, does the same. Apparently we have some sort of internal body clock that works once a year, no winding up or battery replacement required.
My father’s father died in an accident in 1911 at the age of 44. Starting when I became Jewishly eligible at 13, my father insisted that I go with him to the synagogue each year on December 12 for his yahrzeit, the Yiddish word for the anniversary of a loved one’s death.
There must be something about holidays in my family. Bill Tarlow, my cousin on my mother’s side, died this past Thanksgiving at the age of 94. He lived a long and useful life and got 28 more years than my father, 50 more than the grandfather I never knew. But we never have enough time with those we love. Losing a parent may be the way life is supposed to be, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
Like my Christmases, future Thanksgivings for Bill’s son Dan, my third cousin, law partner, and dear friend, will never be the same. That is just a fact of life, something we learn to live with, making the holiday itself a form of yahrzeit.
I remember when my mother’s father, the grandfather I knew and adored, died at age 86, fifty years ago. I called his brother in Detroit to break the news. My great-uncle was so upset he couldn’t speak and hung up the phone. I called him back a while later to console him. “Uncle Saul,” I told him, “I saw Grandpa in the hospital a few days ago, and he was ready to leave.” “Who cares if he was ready?” he shot back. “I’m not ready for him to leave.”
And with the pandemic still upon us, this year’s holiday season will not be the same for millions of family members around the globe who were not ready to lose their loved ones. In that sense, and in lesser ones as well, it will not be a “season to be jolly.” Christmas concerts will not happen, a dozen college football bowl games have already been cancelled, and from the New York City Ballet to dance companies throughout the country, there will be no “Nutcracker” this year.
Most spread-apart families will not be opening presents together, meaning that people will, indeed, be having themselves a merry “little” Christmas. But with a vaccine on the way, we can all hope that “yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” People can look ahead a year and say that in 2021, “I’ll be home for Christmas.”
Meanwhile, this Christmas Eve, I plan to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.” That always-meaningful 1946 movie seems especially so this year. And I’m sure Christmas Day will be the same for me as it has been for so many decades. I will wake up at 6:15, and so will my sister.