Wednesday, December 25, 2013

And the true meaning of Christmas is...

     This Christmas I'm in Colorado, visiting my folks. But for many years, I signed up for Christmas duty at the newspaper, which gave me lots of time to muse on the meaning of Christmas. I feel like I came close to the mark in this column, which ran in the Chicago Sun-Times on Christmas Day, 2005. Or at least as close as someone who has never himself celebrated the holiday can. The piece has all those subheads because, back then, the column ran over a  thousand words, filling a page. It might be a steep hill to climb in these days of 140-character tweets, but I hope it's worth it and adds to your holiday festivity, or comforts your lack of same. Merry Christmas.

     Well that's just dandy. Talk about delicious irony. The office empties out, everybody gets the day off, and they leave behind the Jew to explain the true meaning of Christmas.
     If I must. OK. Here goes. Ahem. Christmas. Dec. 25. There's this tree. . . no wait. This couple, Mary and Joseph, 2,000 years ago, and they have a baby and they name him Jesus and. . .  Santa Claus, one night a year, hoists his pack. . . .
     This is tougher than I thought.
     Oh, heck. Who reads newspapers on Christmas anyway? Only two kinds of people: those working and those visiting relatives.
     Because if you are neither, if you are off work and at your own home with your own family— like most, in other words—then by the time you get done wrapping the presents and videotaping the kiddies ripping open the presents, after you get dinner in the oven and scrub the toilets and straighten out the house for the 20 mooches arriving any second, there isn't a whole lot of time to sift through the newspaper, no matter how well-wrought and fascinating it may be.

     Being at the office—or factory or doughnut shop—can be tough on Christmas, not because there's much to do, but because it's a sign of just how far down the greased pole you really are. Everybody's off, but not you, oh, no, poor you, poor lonely you, forced to stay after school and clap erasers while everyone else is having fun.
     A blow to our fragile egos. Or so I imagine. I wouldn't know because I always volunteer to work Christmas—to serve on the Jew Crew that every 24-hour operation puts in place to hold down the fort while the goyim relax.
     In a way, all those hatemongers sieg-heiling each other in their basements in Cicero are right: The Jews really are running the world, but only on this one day.
     The beauty of being Jewish and working Christmas is that you are doing something highly valued by someone else—someone gratefully freed to be with family and friends on this special holiday—without actually sacrificing anything yourself. And getting paid double-time to do it, to sit around and munch cookies and watch "It's a Wonderful Life" on TV. And people wonder why I like Christmas....
     Christmas Day is quiet, unless something burns down—but it isn't that cold this year, so odds are that shouldn't be a problem.
      In earlier, more ambitious years, I'd try to find an interesting story to report on Christmas. A few decades back—1986, good God!—I spent Christmas Eve riding on patrol with two Chicago Police officers. Tom Eich, badge No. 17815, and David Baez, badge No. 17696, in the gritty Wentworth District. I was scared witless and I was with two cops. Watching them work—Christmas is busy in their business—gave me vast respect for the job police do and how well they do it. The squad car was chasing some kids who stripped a car and, bouncing through an alley, came upon a loitering group of teens. Baez went up, spoke to them, placing a friendly hand on one kid's back. He came back.
      "It wasn't them," he said.
      "How did you know?" I asked, incredulous that he would just take their word for it.
      "When I put my hand on his back, I felt his heart. If he had run from where that car was, it would be going like a trip-hammer."
      That's smart policing.

      Back to Christmas. If you are working, remember that the Norman Rockwell family Christmas you are beating yourself up about missing might not be the actual Christmas unfolding back home. While you are envying them, they might be envying you.
      Maybe you're lucky to be the one sitting in the computer room, under the harsh white fluorescents, dully flipping through the newspaper. Maybe the celebration has broken down—as it often does—into one of those memorable pit-of-the-stomach disasters that seem to afflict families every other year. Maybe you should be glad to be sitting at work, picking at a wilting deli tray, staring at that Halon emergency fire suppression cord again, the same chain you've been gazing at for 10 years while the conviction slowly builds that, one fine day, you will have to pull it or risk going mad.

       The other group of avid Christmas newspaper readers are visitors in other people's homes, the petrified living rooms of aged relatives, their furniture the latest style in 1971. You examine crass bric-a-brac, framed photos of happier times, plunk a key on the untuned piano, offer help in the kitchen, pick listlessly at the bowl of mixed nuts.
      To find a newspaper in such surroundings is manna from heaven, and the stories inside are fallen upon hungrily, even those endless thumb-twiddlers about Sudan.
      So I view my audience as two groups -- a guy at a security desk in a chilly warehouse, and an out-of-town uncle perched on an old sofa in a too-warm living room, trying to block out "A SpongeBob Christmas" blasting from the TV.

       For society, Christmas is shopping and gifts and commerce, the tail that wags the dog, and you don't need me to tell you how hollow that feels, especially as the sun begins to go down. Great that the economy gets a boost, but that can't be what it's all about.
       For the faithful, of course, Christmas is about Jesus, the Christ child, sent to Earth as the savior of mankind. Like all beliefs, it's great if you have it and a bit puzzling if you don't. Myself, I've always felt sympathy for Jesus -- I view him as another Jewish boy manhandled by religion. Poor fellow gets crowded out by the hoopla and ignored, year after year.
      Is there still more to Christmas? Are gifts why families get together this time of year? Is Jesus why they get on airplanes? Or is Christmas like Halloween, another pagan ritual jammed uncomfortably into modern clothes?

      Myself, I like to think that Christmas means we can beat back the cold with our warmth, the loneliness with our love. The most dysfunctional, broken clans still reassemble to give being a family one more try. The worst bosses still have devoted employees who turn their backs on hearth and home to play nursemaid to a balky network server on Christmas Day.
      Life is not fair, thank God, because none of us would want to get what we deserve. That's what Christmas is to me—shorn of commerce and of faith—it's a midwinter bonus, undeserved yet there, proof that we can take our drab, cold, silent, dark, lonely world and spruce it up, with lights and glitter and music and parties and friends and family and faith.
      But heck, I'm Jewish. What do I know about Christmas?


  1. In my family, we read it even on Xmas Day. And even on my bday, the 4th of July-perfect for a History teacher.

  2. One can read the paper before the relatives outing.

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  4. I didn't feel like "the Jew" during my two Christmases working at the newspaper. There were quite a few goyim working there with me, so I definitely didn't feel alone. We brought in liquor and set up a bar, while some chose to get their buzz on another way, down by the loading dock. I don't think any of that would fly now, but it was a looser, gentler, rowdier era. As low man on the totem pole, and a relatively new hire, I was not there by choice, but I made the best of it.

    And yeah, something did burn down, in the sub-zero cold, on Milwaukee Avenue, and thirteen people died, most of them Hispanic. They could not understand the firefighters or the desperate pleas not to jump. Chicago's Bravest were taught useful Spanish phrases like "No brinque!" (Don't jump) afterward. It was neither a silent night nor a quiet one.

    The following Christmas, I volunteered to work. I had nowhere else to go and not much reason to celebrate, which I won't go into. I got overtime at time-and-a-half, which worked out to triple time. On my dinner break, I read the papers from the day before, and came upon a story and photo I'd missed. A sixtysomething CTA bus driver had been robbed and shot while on the job--it was back when the drivers still carried money and made change. A Sun-Times or Trib photographer had caught the moment he was being helped from his bus. His white hair was mussed and the look on his face clearly said: "I'm gonna die...and I know it." Which, sadly, he proceeded to do.

    I was not a kid anymore. I was thirty. And a Chicago native. And I'd seen a few things. But that image was too much for me, and I covered my eyes with my hands and wept openly, not caring who saw me. That was also the moment I realized I could never be a street reporter. Three months later, that decision was made for me, when the Daily News folded after 103 years, and nearly a thousand employees were kicked to the curb.

    I didn't know much about Christmas back then, either. Nor did I care for it. Marriage to two non-Jewish women has changed all that. I have learned to embrace the season, and to simply let it carry me along, instead of trying to beat helplessly against the current. And if there were no Christmas, surely we would have to invent it.


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