My un-Christmas cookies and my Christmas story

When I got back from part 1 of my new shingles shot and a trip to Trader Joe's, I had an urgent need to bake my favorite Black Pepper & Cumin cookies. It's been several years and although I don't like to have cookies around, these are sweet, savory,and spicy -- for me, perfect because I don't really have a sweet tooth.Recipe is in NY Times cooking app - let me know if you want the recipe.

So - it's Christmas Eve as I write this. The holiday has good memories for me. When my grandparents emigrated from Poland in the early 20th century, they thought Christmas was an American holiday. They had never encountered it in Poland. While they celebrated the minor holiday of Chanukah with lighting the candles, eating potato latkes and giving the children chocolate coins wrapped in foil, it was an unimportant blip on the Jewish calendar. But because they wanted their American-born children to feel American, they also put up stockings for my mother and her brothers on Christmas Eve. The gifts were chocolate-covered cherries and an orange for each of them.

I grew up in Montclair, NJ, where there were not many Jewish families. I was the only one in my class. In my home, we lit the menorah and ate latkes on Chanukah, which usually fell around Christmas. So every year, my mother asked, "when do you want your gifts, kids? Christmas or Chanukah?" No contest. That way, when we went back to school and our classmates asked "what did you get for Christmas?" we would have an answer. My parents knew it was uncomfortable for us. But we also knew it was not our holiday - we were just getting our Chanukah presents all on one day.

NO tree - that was o-u-t. So I got my tree fix by going to my friend Bill's house every Christmas eve and helping to decorate his tree. I loved it. And in school, I sang Christmas carols in the chorus, just ignoring the religious meaning and enjoying the beauty of the music. I still do.

Luckily, my children grew up in a community with enough Jewish people that they did not have to feel like outsiders. So Chanukah is gift time for us.

OK - here's the big question: Why do American Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas? (and go to the movies)

If you have seen the movie The Christmas Story, you know what I am talking about. (of course, the family in the movie wasn't necessarily Jewish - but we know that they must have been).

You may think it's a cliché and yes - it's a stereotype, but there is truth behind it.

This tradition began on the lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 20th century. The Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Chinese immigrants lived side-by-side and they were the only two non-Christian groups at that time. Neither celebrated Christmas: they were linked by their "otherness"-- unassimilated, unaccepted -- and in any case, the only restaurants open on Christmas were the Chinese ones. If you were Jewish and wanted to eat out on that holiday, that was the only option.

Even today - what do many Jewish people do on Christmas when everybody else is having Christmas dinner with their families and opening their gifts? We go to the movies (which are always open on Christmas) and go out for Chinese food (or Indian) afterwards. Honestly!

Sadly, there is nothing good playing around West Palm Beach - just testosterone movies, from what I can see. And my cousin Mimi doesn't like Chinese food...and I haven't found a good one around here, anyway. We were just at our nearby Indian restaurant, so that's out. Thai? Asian fusion? We'll figure it out.

Happy Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you.


 all text & images ©rayna gillman 2019