I don’t celebrate Christmas, per se, but I’m thankful this happened once, even if it was a long time ago …
A stranger in a strange land is how I felt standing at Patty’s doorstep on Christmas Eve.
“You must be Patty’s friend from school,” her mom said. I balked.
“It’s all right. Come in.” She took my coat and disappeared with it.
Their house was filled with light and with aromas I didn’t know existed. Every Hanukkah, my house was permeated with the eye-watering smells of spiced-up knishes, kishkah, kreplach, broiled chicken livers and mounds of greasy garlic, onion and potato latkes. And the Hanukkah menorah we dutifully lit each night was lovely, even moving.
But here! Here were exotic scents of fireplace fire, pine, cinnamon and an oven roasting something I was sure I’d never eaten; along with candles glowing in each window and Christmas lights strung just about everywhere.
Patty seemed nervous when she appeared from the staircase. It must have been awkward for her to stand in her own home on Christmas Eve with this Jewish boy, who after band class just a day or so before Christmas vacation (yes, that’s what it was called) had asked her to wear his ring.
“But I’m going to take it off when I play clarinet,” she stipulated. That night, to keep the ring from slipping off her finger, she wreathed it with pink yarn.
I gripped my gift for her inside a thin rectangular Dayton’s box. I’d picked out a scarf myself. It was gray, blue and white with twisted tassels. My sister said it looked like my tallis, my prayer shawl, adding the tease that I’d better not mix them up, considering I was gifting my “cute little Christian girlfriend.”
My Old World grandmother nearly plotzed when she heard the words “Christian” and “girlfriend.”
“Meyn Gat! A shiksa?!” she wailed.
My New World mom stepped in. “Mama, tuh nischt shrayen. Patty es a zeyer sheyn meydl. Dickie leyx ir,” she said.
I understood just enough Yiddish to know Mom had come to my defense. She told Dad to drive me to Patty’s house so I could deliver my gift.
He did. At the curb, he lectured me about remembering to wish Patty and her parents a “Merry Christmas.” He was adamant.
I wish I could remember more of what Patty and I said to each other in her hallway. But after some bumbling moments, she told me to take off my shoes and follow her into the living room. In there was the whitest carpeting I’d ever seen, a piano, and in a corner, their exquisitely decorated, ceiling-high Christmas tree. I’d never been so close to one, and I know I got teary.
Patty sat me on the piano bench, disappeared, then returned with cocoa and a plate of Christmas-looking cookies. “I made these,” she said. We nibbled and sipped next to that dazzling tree until her mom gently called from the kitchen something like, “Patty, it’s time for your friend to go home now.”
“See you at school,” I must have said. “Here.”
And I self-consciously handed over the Dayton’s box. Mom had no Christmas wrapping at home, but she found a stray ribbon to tape on it. It looked like a castaway ragamuffin, dull as dishwater compared to those treasures under the tree. I urged Patty to open it right then so to get rid of that embarrassing box before her family saw it. But she placed it with the other presents.
“It’s all right. Don’t worry,” I know she said to me.
Considering the ring with pink yarn and all, I’d hoped we could kiss quickly — but her mom appeared with my coat and Patty’s cookies wrapped in waxed paper.
Dad was dutifully waiting with the motor running. He immediately asked if I’d remembered to wish Patty and her family a Merry Christmas. I said yeah.
“Good. Let’s go home. Dinner’s waiting.”
Which was a big deal, because we knew Mom had prepared our family’s traditional “Christmas Eve meal” — in those days, there wasn’t much else for Jews to do on that night but hunker down at home — matzo ball soup, chopped liver, brisket, kasha and carrot cake with white icing.
This time Mom added Patty’s Christmas cookies, despite my grandmother’s slow burn. She refused to eat one. “Dreck!” she hissed under her breath. The rest of us ate them all.
By the time school resumed, Patty had replaced the pink yarn on my ring with colors that matched her new scarf. She wore the ring for a couple of weeks until who knows what happened and she gave it back.
At the end of the school year, our family moved a mile or two to an adjacent suburb. In the hearts and minds of 13-year-olds, it was akin to a faraway land. We never saw each other again. Except once. A few years later Patty was sitting in the visitor bleachers at our high schools’ basketball game. I waved. She waved back. That was it.
Still, I cherish the memory of the short-but-sweet Christmas Eve I spent with Patty a long time ago. It seems like yesterday.
Dick Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.