Hol­i­day tra­di­tions don’t al­ways have to be kosher


ALTHOUGH I’M JEWISH, I’ve cel­e­brated Christ­mas most of my life. I was born in 1948 in post­war Poland, the only child of two Holo­caust sur­vivors. My par­ents and I lived in one of the few apart­ment build­ings still stand­ing in War­saw at that time. While my fam­ily was Jewish, we had sev­eral rel­a­tives who had con­verted to Catholi­cism when they mar­ried. I had no idea that some in the fam­ily were Jewish and oth­ers Catholic. They were just fam­ily.

In the 1950s, we were liv­ing in a coun­try that was of­fi­cially Com­mu­nist but also had deep roots in Catholi­cism. Poland had been dev­as­tated by the war and was still in very poor eco­nomic straits. Prod­ucts—in­clud­ing ba­sic foods—were scarce. It’s dif­fi­cult for many of us liv­ing in Canada now to imag­ine Christ­mas with­out the com­mer­cials or songs about Santa and Ru­dolph. But when I was grow­ing up in Poland, tele­vi­sion had not yet ar­rived, and those things had no bear­ing on our ideas and de­sires about Christ­mas. I do re­call hear­ing car­ols on the ra­dio, but these were part of the re­gional folk cul­ture.

Christ­mas was a time of year when my mother and I would make tree dec­o­ra­tions from wal­nuts and sugar cook­ies, which were wrapped in sil­ver foil we had saved all year. I would re­ceive a present or two—one Christ­mas, my grand­mother gave me a lovely red chil­dren’s purse with a few pen­nies in it. We would also have food that we didn’t have at other times of the year, del­i­ca­cies such as or­anges, nuts, dates and lit­tle an­i­mals made from marzi­pan.

It came as quite a sur­prise to me that be­ing Jewish I wasn’t sup­posed to par­tic­i­pate in all this fun.

By my 10th birth­day, in 1958, we had left Poland and set­tled in Mon­treal. We soon ac­quired a tele­vi­sion set, and I learned a great deal about North Amer­i­can life from this box, in­clud­ing the whole range of ways one can cel­e­brate Christ­mas. Lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio, I learned the tunes and words to all the Christ­mas songs, and go­ing to a Protes­tant school, I quickly adopted the lay­ers of tra­di­tions, prac­tices and val­ues that make up Christ­mas. I par­tic­u­larly loved “Ru­dolph the Red-Nosed Rein­deer,” sung by Burl Ives. An­other favourite was go­ing to see the Christ­mas dis­plays, with their me­chan­i­cal,

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