Friday, December 24, 2010

Twas the night before...

As a kid, I strongly remember the joy of the holiday season. It was obliquely obvious that things were different at this time of year. For starters people started treating each other nicely. Perhaps mindful that "Santa" would not reward bad behavior, even the bullies started acting right. I dare say I received very few beatings in the days leading up to the Christmas break. Trust me: with my big mouth and obnoxious attitude, there was always a chance I would be beaten for no other reason than I was small, smart or a smart ass. These holidays were a big deal, definitely surpassing importance than any other including Easter. Before we were let out from public school for the holidays we were always encouraged to sing Christmas songs prior to the big day. I remember fixating on the image of the jolly, fat Santa Claus riding his sleigh full of toys and other gifts with the flying reindeer led by the red-nosed Rudolf himself. It was all such an awe-filled time in my life. I was happy. Then one Christmas my parents dropped the J-bomb. "You're Jewish," they explained. What? Santa wasn't going to visit me and reward me for being a good child? Hmmmm...this was definitely not right. Who do I see about this? Who will fix it so that Santa would continue to include me on his list for future rides? As it turned out, there was no one to see and Santa never did make it back over to the Smason homestead. Yet, there were gifts. Knowing that withholding toys from boys and girls at that particular part of the calendar year could have a deleterious effect on a fragile child's developing mind, my parents were insightful. They always provided gifts for my sister and me, but they didn't make a big deal about it. They went through the motions of providing gifts, but rarely did they ever have me ask for anything in particular. Since I wasn't technically asking Santa for gifts, it was deemed okay. In any event it was tough being Jewish and trying to understand why Jews were being excluded from the busy end of the holiday. Thank goodness that most years Chanukah and Christmas are in close proximity, unlike this year. When I pressed my folks for an explanation, they told me about recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, but it still didn't make any sense to me as to how and why this would manifest in not having a connection to Santa Claus or his reindeer with the famous crimson muzzle. Although we never had a tree or, as some Reform Jews call it, a "Chanukah bush," one of my great aunts did. Oftentimes family members would gather at my great uncle and aunt's home, thereby allowing her to host Christmas for us as a family. I also remember my favorite Christmas character was Mister Bingle, whose TV show was broadcast every year during the days leading up to the big day. Mister Bingle was created by Maison Blanche in the late 1940s as a way of spurring sales in their department store. The character was purported to be a tiny snowman with a red cherry button for a nose, an ice cream cone for a hat and holly leaves for wings. He had mittens made out of candy cane stripes and carried a candy cane. Though it was never fully explained, he was animated through the magic of the holiday by Santa Claus, whom he served as a helper along with the elves. He was very funny, always got into trouble and was the perfect foil for Christmas comedy to a kid. I always imagined meeting Mister Bingle and years later I did...or at least the chain-smoking, baldheaded store employee who did his character's impossibly high voice improvisations. If anything completely dashed my Christmas memories, that was probably it. Maybe that's why I always feel the need to connect to those simpler times when the joy of being rewarded for being a kid was not caught up in any religious rhetoric or significance. I watch Jean Shepherd's "A Christmas Story" broadcast for 24 hours straight every year over TBS at least once or twice to recall in me of the importance of the holiday to impressionable and wide-eyed kids. Plus, looking at the father in that story going gaga over the "major award" leg lamp reminds me that one doesn't have to outgrow that incredible sense of wonder.

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