The first grade classroom was a wonderful world of discovery. For example, I discovered I could give my desk or my seat a shove and neither would move—they were bolted to the ground. The walls had big pieces of slate with a shelf at the bottom and they called them blackboards” even though they were green. There was a big, wonderful clock on the wall. Every new hour the bell would ring and that meant that it was time for the big kids to change rooms. (In the first grade, we didn’t change rooms.)
There was a lot to discover in the first grade, but there were also mysteries—like some of the songs that we sang as the days got shorter and colder. I found myself wondering what a “round yon virgin” was, or why “Harold angel” was singing “hark,” whatever that meant. But when you are six you can afford to be patient, because there are many strange new things, and if you wait the teacher explains them to you. Nevertheless it was my mother who finally explained about the songs. She said that it was alright to sing them at school, but not at home “where Daddy would hear them.” She explained that they just weren’t our songs.
That didn’t entirely satisfy me so I asked my cousin, Donald, who was a year older than me. In a conspiratorial tone Donald said that those were the songs that goyim (non-Jews) sang. Furthermore, he told me goyim had a different religion, and goyim didn’t like us, and that’s why it would upset our parents to hear us sing their songs. He went on to describe how goyim had their own yomtov (holiday) about the birth of this magical baby. The baby was magical, according to Donald, because he grew up and did magical things, like making sick people well, and if he got mad at anybody, by magic he would kill them, and they would be dead. And he was magic because he couldn’t be killed. Well, that’s as much as a six-year-old could understand and I was satisfied for awhile.
Soon I was old enough to realize that there was no such thing as magic, so I lost interest in the magic baby. But somehow, we couldn’t get away from it. On the magic baby’s birthday, some kids got lots of presents—but that wasn’t for Jewish kids. When we went downtown, the store windows had wonderful manikins that really moved, and more songs that we were not supposed to sing. Also, the magic baby holiday had a lot of red and green decorations. The songs sounded happy, and the colors looked bright, but we weren’t supposed to let ourselves be happy, because it was not our holiday—it was for the goyim.
We had Hanukkah, but our candles and our songs didn’t seem as bright and happy as Christmas lights and songs. By the time I got into the third grade, we were able to move into a Jewish neighborhood. All of my Jewish friends made fun of Christmas. We joked as though even if we could have the holiday, we wouldn’t want it. I remember chanting along with my cousins and a couple of neighborhood kids, “We hate Christmas. We hate Christmas.” It’s not that we really hated Christmas. In fact, I think that each one of us probably wanted Christmas—but Christmas left us out. Sometimes I’ve wondered if we learn to hate what we’re not allowed to have.
At the same time it seems like children feel a mysterious beckoning from that which is forbidden. I know that I did, and when a couple of Gentile neighbors moved into the block, I saw Christmas trees and found out that they were fun. The neighbor also gave me some cookies, which my mother later said we couldn’t eat because they were made with lard, or pig fat. I didn’t tell her that I had already eaten one of the cookies.
Many years later when I was a big boy I had a girlfriend, Ceil, who came from a more religious home than mine. Her forbidden fruit was Christmas carols. She liked singing them. It was one of those secrets that teenage kids could only share with one another. Years later, that girlfriend became my wife and those Christmas carols got her wondering and seeking and learning. She learned that the mystique about that baby wasn’t some kind of magic; it was God. From the special birth of the baby Jesus, to the healings and all the miracles—it was all God. And the baby grew up to be Someone who really could be killed, but only because He wanted to die for our sins. Yet He was so powerful, He rose the third day from the dead.
Even though I still ridiculed the idea, it became clear that Ceil believed in a greater reality than the ordinary things we could see and know every day. And though I didn’t want to believe it because I had always learned that Jesus was not for us Jews, somehow I knew that it was true. Before long, I had to admit what I believed and when I did, I discovered that the happy colors and the happy songs to announce Him were for everybody, even me. But the biggest joy wasn’t the lights, or presents or cookies we had secretly longed for as children; it was just knowing Jesus and having Him as Savior. And under God, Jews and Gentiles together could enjoy the meaning of His coming.