The New York I lived in as a kid was a village of four or five blocks. I could wander anywhere my curiosity took me, safe and secure and knowing I'd still find my way home. I could go around the corner to the barber shop and get a trim for a quarter. I could walk a block farther to Moisha's butcher shop, where I'd purchase that night's meal with money my mother had given me, then carry it home, proud and possessive.
And when I was 5 years old, I went to the neighborhood movie theater, the Surrey, for the first time by myself. Ostensibly, I wanted to see a film that just didn't belong in the shtetl where I lived: "The Bells of St. Mary's," in which Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman were a priest and nun determined to save a financially shaky parochial school.
Frankly, I didn't care what was playing. All I wanted was one of the special-edition hardback Dick Tracy comic books being given out as premiums — a dog-eared volume now but one I still treasure.
For me, this village had everything, until one winter when I realized a vital part of American culture was missing from my life: Christmas. The holiday had seeped into my consciousness mostly through a new device called television. If a puppet named Howdy Doody was excited about Christmas, then I figured I should be too.
That same season, NBC aired an opera — "Amahl and the Night Visitors" — about the three kings of the New Testament resting at the home of a poor mother and her lame child while traveling with gifts for the newborn Jesus. When the boy asks the kings to take his crutch to the infant — the only present he could offer — his leg is miraculously cured. I had no idea who the baby was or why he was holy or why kings were bringing presents to him. I do know the opera floored me.
Christmas was all around, yet there was no Christmas for me. Not until I woke up one morning and snowflakes the size of saucers were floating down from the sky. In my excitement, my eyes also became the size of saucers.
Excited because all this whiteness reminded me of this thing called Christmas that was going on everywhere except in my little village in the Bronx, I went running to my father, who was in the living room, summoned up my courage and said, "Dad, I really want to see Santa Claus." From the look I got, it was apparent I'd caught him on a grouchy day. I begged, pleaded, implored and badgered. Finally, he relented.
We put on our jackets and boots and trudged through the snow to the subway station, three blocks away. The subway ride was a mystery: Where were we going? What would happen when we arrived? And who really was this Santa fellow?
After half an hour, my father and I got off the subway and climbed the steps to street level. And there, I was transfixed by the glorious, wondrous palace that towered in front of me: Saks Fifth Avenue. My father guided me inside where hundreds, maybe thousands, of kids were heading toward the rear of the store. That was the spot, I quickly learned, where every child would have a chance to talk — briefly — with Santa himself.
After what seemed like a week, I got to the head of the line. Once I squiggled my way onto Santa's enormous lap, he leaned his rather large face close to mine and asked in a booming voice what I wanted for Christmas. I didn't know that getting something was part of the game. I'd simply figured I'd have a chance to meet someone famous. After thinking hard for a few moments, I finally said, "Santa, I'd like a new dreidel."
Through his thick makeup, I saw Santa blush. Why, I wasn't sure. Apparently not knowing what to say, he slipped me off his lap to make room for the next kid who, I'm sure, did not mix religious metaphors.
The first night of Hanukkah fell two days after Santa had given me the bum's rush. Again, snowflakes as large as saucers were falling, and again, my eyes were as big as saucers. We lighted the first candle on the menorah, and the glow from its light and the beauty as those flakes kept falling, coating grungy New York with their pristine whiteness, and the warmth that filled my home made me realize I didn't need a trip to Saks to ask Santa for anything. Everything I needed was right here.
Arthur J. Magida is writer in residence at the University of Baltimore. His most recent book is "The Nazi Seance."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times