Thanksgiving was Jerrle’s favorite holiday, because it was for everyone. Not this religion or that religion or this ethnicity or that belief, but simply because we were Americans. Everybody celebrated, no one was left out. I loved it too.
But Christmas Eve is my real favorite. Which may seem odd, since I’m Jewish, but you gotta know about Santa’s Magical Shrinking Key for this to make sense. So here you go . . .
I grew up Christian (mostly Lutheran, sometimes Baptist, depending upon which church we could get a ride to from our out-in-the-country home south of Chicago when Dad, who did the family chauffeuring because Mom didn’t drive, worked Sunday mornings.) Our parents weren’t remotely religious–long story, don’t ask–but believed my sisters and I should attend Sunday school and church to learn the basics, because most Americans were Christian so we should understand the cultural references. Then, as adults, we could choose our own religion pathway, or none at all. Yes, our parents were cool in that way.
I turned Jewish in college. I thought Judaism’s “There’s Only One God, Kid, and Moses Ain’t His Son” concept made more sense than the Christian Trilogy–“Um, Teacher, you said God is God, then Jesus is God, and then the Holy Ghost is God.” “Yes, Shane.” “That doesn’t make any sense.” “It’s faith, trust me.” Um, okay. Jews, on the other hand, believed God is God–no sons, daughters, virgin moms, or holy helpers. And, they kicked serious tuchis (that’s Yiddish for “ass”) in the 1967 war, so I figured the Jews were tough little chestnuts that couldn’t be cracked, and when you’re 11, as I was in ’67, boys adore “tough” role models.
So, I converted to Judaism–one of my journalism professors was my conversion teacher, which was cool–and I remain Jewish to this day. I believe in Judaism religiously, because it makes sense and seems right to me. But emotionally …
I love Christmas Eve.
Not Christmas Day, as you might expect, with all the presents and family and friends and food and drink and card-playing and laughter. I loved Christmas Eve because of a magical trick my parents played on me, Diana, and Marianne (my beloved sisters):
Santa’s Incredible Shrinking Key.
The Lutheran and Baptist churches threw their Christmas pageants every Christmas Eve. We Three Kids (of Orient aren’t) were in them whether we liked it or not, cause that’s what you did back in the day–you’re a kid, you’re in a pageant. So we recited our lines–I don’t know if I was a shepherd, sheep, Wise Man, innkeeper, frankincense, or myrrh; who remembers 50 years later?)–went to the afterparty in the basement, then came home.
Before we left for church, Mom and Dad hung a giant wooden key on our front door. Dad had made it in the garage, where he kept all his tools. This key was at least a foot long, all of wood, and painted silver or gold, I forget which. Mom festooned it with ribbons and other finery. It was spectacular. They hung it on the door as we left for church. Every year, we asked, Why.
“We don’t have a chimney,” Dad said. “So the key’s to let Santa in the house to deliver his presents,” Mom explained.
“But it’s a little tiny lock,” I protested, pointing to the knob.
“Santa will shrink it,” Dad assured.
And damned if Santa didn’t do just that. Every year, returning home from the pageant, our front door was unlocked, the key was on the table, and the unwrapped gifts from Santa (the ones from family were wrapped) were tucked under the Christmas tree. Some years, cookies were half eaten and glasses of milk half-drunk. Some years, there were just the presents and the key, which was, magically, re-inflated to its full fine self after shrinking to fit the keyhole.
It drove me crazy, trying to figure out the logic of it when there was none. But eventually, I said the same thing that Lutheran teacher told me years earlier:
“It’s faith, trust me.”
That key, and the familial love that went into it, made Christmas Eve the happiest, and most emotional, of holidays for me. Jerrle knew that, and even though we were Jewish through and through–her born and raised, me converted–she made me a Christmas stocking every year, filled with candy and fruits and occasional weird little toy that made me laugh my tuchis off.
This is my first Christmas Eve without Jerrle, as she died August 31 of metastatic breast cancer. (That info is not new to most of you, but it explains for new friends why I’m writing this at all.) I miss her terribly and always will. I miss the Christmas stocking she made for the 36 straight years we were married. I miss her fixing us a standing rib roast with which we drank good wine and watched “Jaws.” (A splendid Christmas Eve tradition for Jews: dinner and a movie. Christmas Day is Chinese food and a movie, because traditionally, the only restaurants open on Christmas were Chinese, so you go where you are welcomed.)
This year, good friends (all my friends are good, or they wouldn’t be friends) asked if I wanted to spend the day and evening so I wouldn’t be alone. I declined. Christmas Day, yes; I have three engagements, all of them with wonderful people. The day after Christmas, yes; a single engagement with marvelous people. My family is in Arizona, which is why I’m not with them tonight–traveling on major holidays is to be avoided at all costs.
But tonight, I deliberately chose to be alone with my memories of Jerrle. I will roast a standing rib roast–one rib because it’s just me, but dear god, a single rib is STILL two pounds of meat, oy vey–watch a movie, and lift a glass of good wine to my dearly departed, along with my magic-conjuring parents, Lee and Mary Gericke, my sisters, Marianne Gericke Taylor and Diana Gericke and their families. I love you all.
And Joy to the World to the late great Frank and Irene Kovar, our across-the-street neighbors and my parents’ best friends when I was a kid, whose were gracious enough to volunteer to shrink that big ol’ key and put out Santa’s unwrapped presents because they knew how overworked the poor ol’ guy was that time of year so they were happy to help out.
Merry Christmas to all of you who celebrate, and happy winter to those who don’t.