I feel left out of Christmas in an acutely painful way. I know in great detail what I’m missing out on because Christmas was my Jewish family’s business.
When I was a little gentleman attending Hebrew School, my family owned a chain of Christmas stores across the Midwest, the latest in a string of my clan’s retail endeavors. Even as a child, I could see the irony, but instead of asking how selling Christmas fell to us, I assumed it wasn’t fair to make practicing Christians work during their holiday, so we had to do it instead.
My dad traveled all week, setting up and managing, and my mom, two sisters and I hit the road every weekend to meet up with him. As we supplied joyous Christmas memories for so many others from August to December, I went back and forth between learning about the Old (seemingly less exciting) Testament and the newer, cooler testament that better lends itself to retail.
At the stores, I was a jack-of-all-Christmas-trades. A good little Jewish elf. I’d work the register, put stickers on ornaments with a sweet price-gun and, most important, set up the deluxe Nativity scene. “Deluxe” as in the biggest, baddest city of Bethlehem that Dubuque, Iowa, had ever seen. I had Joseph, Mary, precious and omniscient Baby Jesus, pigs, sheep, a mysterious and sassy lute player and, of course, the three wise men.
As I priced the ornaments, I would read the scripture that was often printed on them. After setting up the Nativity scene, I memorized the visual storytelling of the figurines. I believed the stories had to be true.
People spent too much money on this for it to be make-believe.
Unwittingly, I became a Jesus expert. If any of my Hebrew school teachers knew I spent free time reading the New Testament instead of conjugating Hebrew verbs like I was supposed to, I would have had to write my name in the big black book. No one ever got in real trouble in Hebrew school. Instead you just wrote your name in a book, which was still terrifying because of the mystery of it all.
I knew so much about Christmas and its titular character that I was convinced Jesus was coming back and that he’d be very angry with me for having all of this info and still practicing Judaism. I spent much of fifth grade wondering if it was my last grade before transferring to hell. Not kidding. Thankfully, the never-ending loop of Christmas music in the stores helped calm my inner turmoil, and my End Times fears started to subside after we survived Y2K.
I did have the presence of mind to wonder “why aren’t there any Hanukkah stores?” When I posed this question to my parents, they deflected and said we were special because we got to celebrate for eight nights instead of one. I guess I didn’t have a ton of integrity because truthfully the eight gifts were probably what kept me on Team Old Testament. Still, it felt like every year, I had to set up Jesus’ cool birthday party, and I never got to attend.
As I was preparing for my bar mitzvah and technically becoming a Jewish man (but still secretly buying action figures), my parents closed the stores. This was about 2,000 years after Jesus’ first birthday bash.
Online shopping had made the seasonal Christmas pop-up less relevant so my parents pivoted into the insurance business. They traded magical holiday stories for the stark reality that you can and will get hurt or sick and not be able to afford it.
Sure, I may be a full-fledged adult now, but when you look at me with your happy, festive face and exclaim, “Merry Christmas,” it hurts. I’m triggered by Christmas because I feel white-hot envy, even if I did finally settle into Judaism. I’m no longer warily looking over my shoulder for angry Jesus, but I remain fixated on the culturally Christmas trappings.
So if you wish me a “Merry Christmas,” you should be legally obligated to invite me over to celebrate with you. Here’s how I see the holiday going down.
I get to come over to your house at 4:30 p.m., to maximize the “eve” part of Christmas Eve. You’ve already made me a stocking with my full name embroidered on it and hung a wreath so big that some might even consider it irresponsible.
Next, I get to spend 20 to 30 minutes quietly gazing under the tree, where no less than five pristinely wrapped gifts adorned with seasonally appropriate ribbons and Santa’s smiling face will have my name on them. I’ll say, “Ah, you shouldn’t have,” but we’ll both know you didn’t have a choice.
We’ll wear special-ordered matching pj’s with our names embroidered on them, the kind that flood my Instagram feed, taunting me. You’ll give me a nickname like “Jolly J” or “Da Big Elf.”
For dinner, you’ll make a Christmas goose, since I’ve always wanted to sit around a table with one. Post-feast, we’ll sing carols, eat cookies and joke about how we’re not leaving any for St. Nick. Then, we’ll watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Frozen,” filmic bookends that represent everything I’ve missed.
And, finally, I’ll no longer have to meekly reply to strangers, “I don’t celebrate Christmas.” Because I did. Once.
Jason Shapiro is a comedy writer and author of the satirical Los Feliz Daycare Twitter feed.