Santa, Luminarias and My Jewish Identity

By Helen Horwitz

During my Albuquerque childhood in the 1940s and ‘50s, local experiences to reinforce my Jewish identity were limited.

Nevertheless, I grew up understanding that I was a Jew – although in those years, Albuquerque had no Jewish Community Center, or after-school programs and summer camps for Jewish youngsters.

My brother and I faithfully attended religious school at Temple Albert, where my parents were active members for most of their lives. In our home, we observed the dietary laws only at Passover; however, my mother never served pork nor did she ever make any dish that combined meat and dairy.

At most, the local Jewish community numbered 150 or so families; everyone knew everybody else, including their children. At about age 8 or 9, when I started going downtown on Saturdays by myself, I always felt safe and protected. Jewish merchants owned many of the stores along bustling Central Avenue, and I sometimes stopped in to say hello to several – especially Julius and Joe Mandell, and Mary and Louis Cohen.

Christmas, however, was an altogether different and special time for my family – in the happiest sense. Perhaps this was because Albuquerque was then a small and very homogeneous town of 75,000 people, with no overt anti-Semitism that I can recall. Or, maybe it was because we also had family friends who were Christian. Whatever the reason, we marked Christmas with our own secular rituals and celebrations.

For starters, on Christmas Eve we made our annual excursion to see the holiday lights. Hurriedly, we would eat an informal dinner (one favorite was kosher frankfurters that Magidson’s imported all the way from Chicago, plus my mother’s tasty vegetarian baked beans), then quickly wash the dishes, button up our winter coats, and pile into my father’s latest Buick.

In those days, the family car was how everyone took in Albuquerque’s magical display of luminarias and colored lights. At the time, I doubt anyone who resided in our little town on New Mexico’s high desert envisioned how thousands would someday scramble for the limited tickets on city buses to enjoy this traditional event.

The displays were in only two parts of the city – the Country Club and around Ridgecrest. In the Country Club area, my favorite display was at the Hebenstreits’ on the southeast corner of Laguna and Sixteenth Street. Every year, their rambling, mission-style house was painstakingly outlined with myriad little blue lights; the sidewalks, plus every landscaped detail of their large corner lot, were defined with countless luminarias. It was breathtaking!

On these annual treks, one of my favorite activities was to look for Jewish homes with Christmas trees in the windows. I never tired of noisily pointing them out to my parents, although at the time I secretly wished that we had one, too.

Back home again, and until after my eighth Christmas, my parents hurried me off to bed because – as they always warned me – Santa Claus wouldn’t come until I was fast asleep. In those years, the jolly old man co-existed for me along with the Maccabees and the miraculous lamp oil. I attached no religious significance to Santa; he simply left me dolls, books and games in exchange for the cookies and milk I carefully left for him.

We also observed the eight nights of Chanukah, complete with gifts, albeit much smaller. But this changed after my parents outed Santa to me. In succeeding years, each night brought a wonderful new surprise. I still remember the pink Sunbeam hairdryer – my first – that I received for Chanukah.

On Christmas Day, my mother always roasted a huge turkey, the centerpiece of a grand meal honoring the birthday of my maternal grandfather, Joseph Markus. After my grandmother’s death in the mid 1940s, he left Michigan to live with us for much of my childhood. Grandpa hadn’t known his birth date when he emigrated in 1895 from Lithuania, so when he first needed to fill out official documents, he decided to share the birthday of another Jew.

Today, my appreciation of the visual beauty and the social aspects of the Christmas season, together with an awareness of my Jewish self instilled in me so long ago, continue to nurture my secular enjoyment of this most important Christian holiday. I am very comfortable telling you that December is always a pleasurable time for me. (And if you are wondering: No, I’ve never had a Christmas tree!)

Now, as I work toward my eighth decade, I realize how these rituals of my childhood years helped to counter feelings of alienation and uncertainty. The traditions also taught me to appreciate and enjoy the multi-cultural society into which I was born. My memories of Christmases past help to define who I am, and they still provide something warm, steady and reassuring.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *