My Best Christmas was Chanukah

happy_christmanukkah.jpgI was never walked into a temple. Never. Not by my dad, the Jew. I thought being Jewish meant eating lox, bagel & cream cheese in a deli. Because that’s what my dad, the non-religious Jew told me. When we ate at Nate n’ Al’s, he would announce loudly as he seemed to be pointing to the food, “We’re Jews!!!”

I sang with my friend Cindy Lou Carlson in her church for the Christmas pageant. Those rehearsals alone put me in a church more times than I was ever in a temple – at least until my kids and step-kids became B’nai Mitzvah.

I’m assuming my mom was some sort of Christian, but your guess is as good as mine. She never walked us into a church and never spoke of any religion. So, there you go, two parents – one gentile, one Jewish – who offered zero religious guidance. We called ourselves half-and-half. This was pretty commonplace in Beverly Hills, though each family would often choose a side and go to temple or church. Christmas or Chanukah.

patty-play-pal.jpgWe celebrated Christmas, tree and all. Show business was up and down and some years we had big-time gifts. The trees were bigger in those years. At other times we might have skimpy trees with few gifts.

One year, I scored. We all scored. My dad had a friend who had a TV show and he finagled a bunch of freebie popular toys of the day for us. I coveted Patty Play Pal. She’s all I ever wanted. I wonder if there were Chatty Cathy people and Patty Play Pal people. I just dug how big that doll seemed. I was little, so for me she was huge.

That year, my mother got her new hi-fi and played it continuously Christmas day. Holiday paper and ribbon were strewn about as Bobby Darin belted “Mack the Knife.” And I got my big-ass doll – a new friend in my wonderful fantasy-filled life. My brother got shit he wanted. We had pogo sticks and stilts. We were a very happy family with a house filled-to-the-brim with every hot toy and gadget.

But do you know whom I was forever envious of? The Rutenbergs. Why? Because they celebrated Chanukah, getting gifts for 8 straight nights. I was very close with Lori and Lesley Rutenberg and my mother was a friend of their mother’s, Mary Lou. My brother Alan played baseball with the twin brothers, Bennett and Peter.

playdoh.jpgOne year, my mother made an announcement. This year, we were to finally celebrate Chanukah. Oh my fucking God, I have never been more excited. I was going to get a different gift every single night for 8 nights. This was a thrilling turn of events. We celebrated every evening at the Rutenbergs. One night, I got Play-Doh. Another, Pick-up Sticks. Then a “dam-it doll” (Troll doll). My brother Alan probably got marbles or perhaps a stamp collection book. Do you get where this is going? I mean I was the most grateful child for any gift, so I was fully enjoying and loving each night. But let’s face it these were 8 cheap gifts. It was not a Patty Play Pal year. I did, however, really like singing “The Dreidel Song” and getting Chanukah gelt (chocolate covered money).

And when my kids have their own blogs, telling their childhood stories, here is one they will more than likely tell. One year, nothing. Their mother didn’t go out and buy a single gift. I couldn’t decide if we were doing Christmas or Chanukah, so we did basically … zip. My excuse? I had no money. Oh, come on, you can be so creative with no money. I just got lazy. And frankly, I’m just always a touch confused during this holiday, not being religious and all. Random days should be holidays. All right, enough excuses.

xmascats.jpgI felt bad on Christmas Day and I sat both my kids down, sort of serious and ceremonial. I told them I had something VERY special to give them. I said it again. “This is VERY special. You understand how special this gift is about to be?” I’m building. They are wide-eyed, small children. We had two cats, Axel and Algernon.

My kids had these two cats all their lives. Sitting there, looking into their eyes, (not a tree or a present anywhere) I declared Axel is now “YOURS” to Oliver. I handed Axel to him. Then I looked at Augie, handing over her great new Christmas present, telling her Algernon was “HERS”. They bought it!!!!!

I gave my kids hand-me-down, already-belonging-to-them cats as Christmas gifts. And they were overjoyed. Best Christmas ever! I’m kidding, it wasn’t – but we do laugh about that moment when they play back some of the wacky things I have done as a mother.


Fredrica Duke shares how she discovered her love of food while growing up in Los Angeles on her blog Channeling the Food Critic in Me.