It’s bitter cold outside. It feels more like Boston in January than the lowcountry in December. All of nature has stopped in its tracks. No crows hop about in the street. There are no humans. No dogs. No birds. Even the anoles are hunkered down somewhere. So are the alligators, bobcats, coyote and deer. But there must be something out there. The cats are sitting at the top of their indoor tree, staring out. They never sit alert, staring for this long. I stared with them for a while, trying to figure what transfixed them but I didn’t find it.
The two Zachs of Ohio are coming to last night of Hanukkah dinner. It’s also Christmas Day and they are single, Christian men who live far from home. I’ve never liked the practice of turning Hanukkah into Little Christmas, but I realize I’m cooking a more elaborate meal in honor of my guests’ holiday. Normally, I’d light the final night’s candles and eat a simple meal. Tonight will be a feast. We’ll light the menorah when they arrive then I’ll grill steaks outdoors where it’ll be 20-something degrees. I might mangle the job. But the marinade is so great it will be tasty regardless. We’ll start with caprese and good bread. Latkes and asparagus with the steaks. All the sweets people have been sending us for dessert. As my mother would say, it’ll be grand.
I had to argue with Stephen about the time. He finds dining before 8 pm barbarous. I tried to tell him people expect Christmas Dinner in the early or middle afternoon. Since first Zach is a blues musician who sleeps as late as my night owl husband does, Stephen insisted he would agree to a late hour. When Zach was asked about it, he was gracious and gave Stephen free reign. I made him compromise on 6 pm. Second Zach we met when first Zach’s band was playing Prohibition late on Tuesday nights before covid. Second Zach always stopped by our table to say hello. We like second Zach.
The thing of it is that Christmas is a curious dilemma for many Jews. Its traditional customs, feasting and gift-giving are attractive. What’s not to like about gift-giving and feasting? Expressions of kindness and warmth are appreciated by everyone. Even the non-secular part, the celebration of a savior’s birth, that calling upon the Christ in gratitude and adoration is pleasant to observe when it is sincere, innocuous when it’s not.
We even have a Christmas tradition at home. Stephen never got over his experience of being taken to midnight mass by a girl he romanced in Italy in 1965. He insists on watching C-span’s broadcast of the Vatican’s midnight mass every Christmas Eve, usually to my objections. Not because I object to his fondness for the memory of Carmen Pucci and their midnight mass, which comes shrouded in distant romance. As a student of the Rennaisance, he also loves hearing the names of the Italian nobles. He loves seeing them in their pews beneath the eye of the Pope, the Orsinis and Colonna at last sitting together in peace. I object because it’s boring. Within minutes, I fall asleep.
So what of this holiday is a curious dilemma? Most Jews are magnanimous when it comes to rendering to Ceasar. The Torah instructs Jews to respect the customs of the land in which they reside. It’s a small feeling. But it nags. It rubs.
It reminds me of another feeling from the first time Stephen and I lived in South Carolina on the island. 1988-1989, when I learned to ride my horse, and where I made beloved friends that remain beloved friends. It was the year of my fortieth birthday and I casually told all my sparkling new friends I didn’t want a to do. I didn’t even want a call of congrats. I would appreciate being ignored for the day.
And they did. They ignored me. It was a lonely birthday and there was no one to blame but me.
Christmas makes me feel the same. I’m standing outside of it. By my own choice, that’s true. But here I am, on the outside nonetheless, while the whole world revels within.
That birthday, I made Stephen jump through hoops to make up for things, but that’s another story.
The cats have stirred. They’re in full stretch and about to sleep. I better get downstairs and chop some garlic. The lads are coming. It’s going to be a great night.