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Ho, ho, ho and bottle of rum

So, here are the holidays again. Forget the weird wicker reindeer lit up and eating grass in people’s yards, forget the holiday flags flown from suburban yuppie homesteads (although proclaiming one’s allegiance to a giant snowman is not sounding too silly right now). The appearance of the annual crop of holiday films is a reliable a sign as the old North Star to lead you into holiday hell. I ignore these offerings at the theatre. There’s no reason to pay good money to see funny, drunk Santas, or grown men in tights and pointy shoes when you can hang out at various locales downtown and see this any time you’d like for free.

I went to see Mystic River because it is being touted as the big Oscar wiener and I am tired of never seeing those movies, alienation and apathy having defined every Academy gala season since Platoon won. After the first 20 minutes, I stopped wishing that the film would miraculously transform into the long-awaited sequel to Mystic Pizza and started wishing for a whiskey and cigarette. This desire grew urgently for the duration of the film, tempered only by my desire to see Kevin Bacon develop just one (one is all I ask!) wrinkle or laugh line. Some trace of age so that one might recontextualize him in these modern times. He is ageless, as if he exists in some timeless vacuum, floating footloose through the years. Creepy. It’s like if Sean Penn only wore those checkered Vans from Fast Times and couldn’t take them off. Ever. But cinematically speaking, I could have fared much worse.

For instance, I saw that there is some horrendous Hugh Grant film playing in which he slarves all over the screen in a lovesick, morose manner and looks pathetique in the snow. If I’ve got to deal with an over-sensitive leading man in precipitation, at least give me John Cusack, who has the “moping in the rain” clause written into his contract. He is a total pro. I cannot stand Hugh for a number of reasons, but primarily because he’s a looker-upper. Check it out for yourself. He’s always peering up at you, perhaps because he’s got a penchant for dating statuesque models, or transvestite prostitutes. But it is not an appealing trait, nor even vaguely endearing in a sort of lost puppy kind of way. And I cannot believe what madness the industry appears to have wrought with The Cat In The Hat. The trailer implies that the Cat possesses some kind of infantilized sex drive and suggests his hat as some kind of phallic stand-in. Ew. I can see it now: groups of 4 year-olds crowding around the finger-paint next Monday morning saying, “I haven’t read the book yet, but I saw the movie.”

A much safer bet is that I noticed the Wizard of Oz is being aired on television next week and this always heralds the onset of some kind of holiday…although I always thought it was Easter. But I suppose I’m thinking of the 10 Commandments. Burning bush, burning strawman, whatever. Both flicks are about a journey and a bunch of misfits who find themselves overly reliant on the man behind the curtain. And let’s not forget little Judy Garland, that’s right (as my great aunt would have said): Frances Gumm to you. Yes, around this time of year I suddenly become hyperaware of all things Jewwy. Like myself.

Usually, like Judy, I like to bury this aspect of myself under heaps of bland Americana, i.e. I do things like say “the holidays.” But wait, don’t get all armchair analyzy on me. I think it’s ducky that my understanding of cultural entendre and appreciation of a good matzoth ball have enriched my life. That’s as far as I’ll go with organized religion (without mass quantities of opium or whatever Marx prescribed). This time of year doesn’t sit well with me because of my (sob) horrible childhood in a completely non-Jewish neighborhood and school. Just kidding about the horrible, but not anything else.

When you are the only Jewish kid around, Christmastime is something to watch unfold and engulf everything around, except you. Everyone, from the mail man to the checkout girl at the grocery store is saying “Merry Christmas” and slipping you a candy cane. Every window display, every commercial you see, every song you hear…I would hear Elton John whining the plaintive hymn of the Africans, “Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?” and wish I could relate. Either that or just celebrate the stupid holiday. Weren’t my parents always saying it was so divorced from its religious significance anyway?

I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t have that Punky Brewster savyness about me, or the flippancy, or social skills it would have taken to strongly assert my Jewish Identity to Ms. Keeler’s fourth grade class (for example). Especially after little swastikas turned up all over my pencil box and book covers. I didn’t even have the presence of mind to feel offended religiously, though instinctively, I knew that the use of the swastika was just plain tacky. It didn’t phase me that much as an experience. I was raised in an agnostic wasteland whose boundaries were fluid at best. My Jewishness came and went with visiting relatives or my mother’s whim. Mind you, this was before your Schindler’s List, your Rachel Green on Friends. I had no landmarks. All there was when I was a kid was Woody Allen’s neurosis and the ghoulish icon of Anne Frank. And Yentyl.

So, Christmas came and left me awash in a sea of red and green. Maybe if there had been some oasis of white and blue, some place where I felt the common sting of exclusion, that would have been something. Sure, Becky, the Korean girl, was informed that “Slanty Claus” was coming to her house, but at least she didn’t have to watch 20 pairs of eyes roll when “I Had A Little Dreidel” was inserted once more into our holiday song repertoire. For whatever sick, sad reason I knew in my two-sizes-too-small heart that this time of year was about the “holiday,” X marks the spot, Xmas, and I felt slighted.

Ah, but, the “official” holiday season begins with Thanksgiving, does it not? Yes, true, everybody gets Thanksgiving, regardless of religious orientation. But who cares? This is not an officially fun holiday of child-centric excess. It is simply gastronomic gluttony for all. Really, all it is is a day to eat, and Judaism has pretty good coverage there already. So, no. Thanksgiving is not an equalizing holiday treat. All it did for me was pinpoint the official entry into the “season” and I would start to feel antsy. As I left school for Thanksgiving’s long weekend, it was like all the little hand turkeys hanging on the bulletin board waved “so-long” forlornly, and I knew when I walked back into school on Monday that comforting inclusion would be gone and things would not be the same. (“But, sweetie, WHY don’t you want to make a glitter candy cane ornament to bring home to your mom?” “Because she would torch it in the Menorah! Aaaagh!”[Runs out of classroom.])

The great divide occurs, of course, over Christmas and Hanukah, which, as my parents were always keen to point out, are not parallel holidays at all in the way popular culture has tried to spin them as such. When my father’s parents were alive (and Catholic), we got some of the xmas cheer. When they died, we drifted back into only observing Hanukah, and I felt the weirdness of being the only Jewish kid in my class more sharply. The fact that we weren’t even religious Jews, barely practicing at best (that’s out of practice, ha, ha), underscored how clearly unfair it was that I should feel social alienation stemming from what appeared to be arbitrary ancestry.

Motivated purely by the gifting rituals of the two holidays, I tried to negotiate some sort of godless middle ground but props such as a “Hanukkah Bush” were written off by my parents as ridiculous symbolic approximations. Not that it even mattered. If the Festival of Lights came early that year, all the other kids would still be eating turkey sandwiches when I came prancing into school with my new leg-warmers on, waving the latest Cindy Lauper album. The greatest gift I could get was a synchronization of the Jewish calendar with our own. Then everyone could show off their spoils of the season, competing on equal ground, after New Year’s was over and we were back at school. The first thing I did with a calendar back then was look to see if Hanukah overlapped, or even came close, to Christmas at the end of that year. I was, and am, a soulless child.

But, no. I am an adult now, mature and self-aware. I have been seasoned by the seasons of my youth and know the true meaning of the holidays now. It lies in giving, not receiving, and indulging in a nice peace/love frame of mind for a few weeks of the year. And most importantly, it lies in the culmination of the season, the chance to begin anew, turn the page on the old year and embrace the universal, qualities that we all share in spirit. I mean in spirits. Everyone can get drunk on New Year’s Eve. It’s non-denominational, thank God.

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