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Our Jewish Christmas Traditions

My family never observed Christmas, but we did mark the holiday every year, with our own recipes

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(Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photo Shutterstock; recipe photo below Jessie Leiken)

There is something I must confess: I have always been a closet Christmas lover. I love to sing carols, I love admiring Christmas trees, and I have always envied what I imagine as a storybook day filled with gifts and stockings.

When I was very young, my family lived in Larchmont, N.Y. I realize now that my mother enabled, in her own Jewish way, the fascination with Christmas that my brothers and I had. In our house, we had a separate staircase off the kitchen leading up to where our beloved housekeeper, Susie Marbry, lived. Next to her bedroom was a sitting room where every Christmas she had a tree, probably procured by my mother, that we helped decorate year after year. Underneath were gifts from our father’s business associates who happened to be Christian. Downstairs, with the rest of the house decorated in blue and yellow, we celebrated Hanukkah.

During the so-called holiday season, my parents always had a party with eggnog served in a big glass punch bowl, as well as my father’s champagne punch—the one recipe he brought from Germany before the Second World War, and the only recipe he ever prepared himself. My parents invited Jews and gentiles—including our teachers and policemen like Johnny Caputo, who walked us home across the street from the Murray Avenue School every day.

As my 99-year-old mother Pearl still remembers, at those parties she generally served roast turkey with cranberries. And she also served her signature casserole containing sauerkraut, tiny hot dogs, tomatoes, and brown sugar. We adored, and still adore, that simple, sweet and sour, one-pot dish. (To this day, my mother claims that putting it together is not cooking. Tongue in cheek, she has always teased that she signed a prenuptial agreement with my father never to cook.) Later, when we moved to Providence, R.I., we also celebrated Christmas … in a way. With the city’s larger Jewish population, my mother switched her party entrée to glazed corned beef once the Thoughts for Buffets cookbook came out in 1958, produced by Chicago housewives as a fundraiser for their local JCC.

Since my grandmother Lina’s birthday was Dec. 25, on Christmas day we always went to my Aunt Lisl’s home in Cranston, where my grandparents lived, after emigrating from Germany in 1931 at the urging of my father. Lisl would make roast goose with spaetzle, roast beef, and sometimes stuffed cabbage—dishes she remembered from growing up in Germany. One of my fondest memories, though, of this early time was going to my aunt’s home weeks ahead of Christmas and making butter cookies with her. Instead of decorating them with Christmas-themed red and green glaze, though, hers were pink and blue. In her breezeway, she stacked tins filled with various shapes of these delicious cookies. In retrospect, I think some of the tins upon tins of cookies were made with pareve margarine since, unlike my parents, my aunt kept a kosher home.

When I married into a family that had no Christmas envy, I stopped thinking about the Christian holiday so much—although I could not give up going to cookie swaps where I baked lots of Christmas cookies, and occasionally sang my heart out at Messiah sing-alongs. When our children were young, my husband Allan was the legal counsel for the late ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick. Each year, she invited our children into her home to trim her Christmas tree. It was Daniela, Merissa, and David’s job to unwrap the handed-down ornaments, including the angel that they put atop the tree. Afterward, I served the cookies I brought and admired the children’s handiwork. The late ambassador called our participation “her attempt at encouraging ecumenicalism for the Nathan Gerson family.”

These days, if we are home on Christmas, we mark the day in a different way: by doing community service. But we still have a special Christmas tradition about food. If we don’t dine at home, we do what most every Jewish family does: We go out for Chinese food.


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fred capio says:

Do we really need to embellish Hanukkah with christmas?
My two brothers and I were born and raised in a major western European city. We never, ever celebrated christmas. When we were children many people felt sorry for us. Even though we were wealthier then most of them they used to say: “these poor children, look how they are deprived of the joys of christmas and receiving gifts. ” I remember thinking: “what are they talking about?, I am proud that we don’t celebrate christmas and that we are not like them” I have never understood why so many Jews celebrate christmas and it truly irritates me. The contentions with which they rationalize this, I heard them all.

    bernardbaum says:

    Its not the Celebration of Christmas i its religious sense. ..Its the celebration of the spirit of peace and good will towards (wo )men …. which is not and should not be limited to one religion ; unfortunately lands but for a fleeting moment towards the end of the year .I certainly don’t “celebrate” Christmas(albeit I am of the same religion as Jesus , that is .Jewish) but I do enjoy most of the trappings of the Holiday season ; the smells , the sounds and most importantly , it feels , like the empathy between people. So as Tiny Tim said ” … G-d bless us every one ..”

      fred capio says:

      I do not see a reason why I, as a Jew, should seek spiritual association with people who murdered, or stood idly by, 6 million Jews. If you feel the need to “celebrate the spirit of peace and good will towards men” why do you need to do it using a institutionalized holiday of the christian faith? But, please do not answer this question because your whole posting is irrational mumble jumble

        bernardbaum says:

        Ok; I won’t reply since you apparently don’t seem to be able to distinguish between mumble and jumble .
        Bernard Baum

bernardbaum says:

Love this article . Must have been a privilege to work for /with Ambassador Kirkpatrick ;….. and Chinese food on Christmas Eve/Christmas day is ,of course ,a Jewish tradition .
Love it , love it ,love it .I recall one year the owner of the restaurant we were in seriously thought it had been mandated by the rabbi for us to be there eating her prepared Chinese food .

And to all my friends who have not yet come back from their christian sojourns , Yasha Koach to you this and every other Christmas to come . Shalom to us all .


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Our Jewish Christmas Traditions

My family never observed Christmas, but we did mark the holiday every year, with our own recipes

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