This is a tough time of year to be married to a Jew if you're not one. Or, too, if you're a Member of the Tribe in shikse clothing and your spouse cites “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” as his favorite childhood carol. This pairing is the devotional equivalent of the perplexing Mary Matalin-James Carville union. My guess is they have really hot make-up sex after every election cycle.
My husband is the son of Jews who didn't buy into all the hocus-pocus but who didn't give themselves over to the gentile way of life, either. I was born in Utah to a Jewish mother and a Mormon father who embraced holidays with kid appeal and ditched the Saturday/Sunday School dogma for the ski slopes instead. I do not find my spirituality in the mumblings of a synagogue or in the preachings of a cult; having had too many negative experiences with both Judaism and Mormonism, I reject organized religion in general and those two in particular. But thanks to childhood rituals, I have a thing for Christmas.
I believe so deeply in the magic lie of S. Claus and the shimmery surroundings of The Big Day that I accepted Sam's marriage proposal only with the condition that a Christmas tree and all the trappings would be a guaranteed part of our future. He capitulated, asking only that I agree to go through the motions of Hanukkah and that Easter would be permanently shelved. I have nothing against a lit menorah in the window, and a giant bunny hiding pastel eggs never made sense to me the way a fat man sliding up and down chimneys did. And so concluded the negotiation of our pre-nup.
We've been together 11 years now and while Sam has been beyond tolerant of my Christmas habits, schooling him has not been without challenges.
The first year we lived together, his Christmas participation was limited to selecting the tree that we—well, he—put up in our 800-square-foot rental. That winter, he shuffled along behind me at the pumpkin-patch-turned-tree-lot on the corner of Garnet and Bayard in Pacific Beach. I'd coaxed him there under the influence of unspoken idealistic visions of lovers embarking on what was sure to become a ritual to see them through the years: They would agree instantly on the perfect tree and they would wrestle it across the threshold of their home together. They would trim that tree, sip Baileys Irish Cream over ice and laugh as they untangled the dusty mess of lights, and they would make animalistic love beneath that tree in the glow of those sparkly lights still tangled in a pile next to them, the original task to be finished only after the last drop of candy-cane-flavored lubricant was gone. I was in love, and this was Christmas!
But back to the tree lot.
I inspected tree after tree and asked his opinion on them all: Too tall? Too bushy? Too lopsided? Too blue? He faced me with a look that could only be described as who-the-hell-are-you-and-what-have-you-done-with-my-girlfriend?
Blink-blink-blink went his eyes in the silence, presumably while he tried to gauge which verbal response would get him in the least amount of trouble. “Sure. It looks like a nice enough tree to me.” I rewarded his staid effort by getting all pissed because he wasn't enthusiastic enough. “You're not even trying!” I told him as he dragged the tree I'd picked to the car. That good ol' Jewish guilt bubbled right to the surface of my yuletide evening. There was no wild lovemaking on the floor or anywhere else that night. And yes, I know: It's amazing the man wanted to marry me.
With each successive year, he's become more dedicated in his quest to internalize Christmas cheer. He's active now when choosing our seasonal pine, and this year, after hammering tirelessly—and to no avail—for nearly 30 minutes on an old tree stand made of rebar and an oversized screw, he made several trips to the store to procure the exact right one that would make me happy. He not only noticed but complimented my new tree-stand cover, despite the hideous tassels on its five corners.
My Jew-boy recites the best one-liners from Elf with perfect inflection and, last week, set The Sinatra Christmas Album to repeat before leaving for Boys' Night. He places the stockings with a keen eye for aesthetics and can hang a cedar bough with the same care and precision with which he might hang a mezuzah were he married to a different yaldah. The man even climbed the ladder and strung lights around the eves of the house, electrocuted himself in the process and then started all over when he realized half of them had been burned out. Granted, that was six years ago, and they hang there now as I type this. (Yes, we are those people.) “A happy wife is a happy life,” he likes to say, and it's because of this mantra that he's assured me the lights are coming down on New Year's Day.
The biggest stumbling block has been the Santa concept. Where Ruby has begun to grasp the mysterious ways of Santa, Sam has struggled. He keeps trying to stuff trinkets into the stockings (terribly sweet), and I keep explaining that stockings are to remain empty until Christmas morning (terribly bossy). While I was in San Francisco recently, Sam took Ruby to pick out toys for the dog, gifts he placed under the tree with a note that read: From Santa. I pulled Sam aside and lectured him about how it's this kind of mistake that can blow the whole thing, and thank God I'd come home just in time.
It's safe to say that Sam has more than honored our marriage vows. He's tried, in every way he knows how, to embrace something mostly meaningless to him because it's a nostalgic touchstone for me. It's selfless in a way, and he's a mensch to the core. But I'm convinced he had the Christmas spirit in him all along. He just needed a fair-weather Jewess to bring it out in him.