The downside of being a multi-ethnic household this time of year is that I’m always afraid the Menorah will set fire to the Nativity scene.
Actually, the even more flammable risk on our mantle is our Swedish julbock, or Yule goat, a straw-constructed figure of pagan origins who was credited with bringing gifts to sleeping children before getting the boot from Santa. Still a universal symbol of Christmas in Scandinavian countries, life-size or even mega-sized straw julbockar are erected in the town squares of many communities in Sweden.
The town of Gavle, unwisely boasting the tallest one (41 feet), has inspired a quaint Swedish tradition involving attempts by neighboring towns to torch the Gavle Yule goat in the dead of night. They’ve been successful some 28 times.
Over time, the holiday season in our house has evolved into a multi-cultural, multi-belief food fest that has incorporated the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and other inclinations of the extended assemblage. For a while, one family member embraced Festivus, the Seinfeld-inspired alternate holiday celebrated on Dec. 23 that rebels against the commercialism of the holiday season and features a plain aluminum "Festivus pole.” According to Wikipedia, the holiday also features “the labeling of easily explainable events as ‘Festivus miracles.’" I have to say, you do a lot less wrapping.
Multi-cultural holiday celebrations were always a part of my upbringing, and not just because my own parents were of different religions. My mother taught ESL (English as a Second Language), so we always had a house full of recently-arrived immigrants my mother was tutoring on her own time, helping them get better jobs, drivers licenses etc. She would also teach her students to drive in our car. I swear she could yell “STOP!” in 15 languages.
In gratitude, her students often bought us wonderful dishes from their native countries, particularly at Christmas, along with tales of their country’s Yule traditions. I was fascinated from an early age at the variety of ways that people of different lands celebrated the same holiday. But I was equally fascinated by holidays that weren’t celebrated in my house at all.
Fortunately, I was able to be included in some of those holidays, as I got older. Jumping at the chance to spend my senior year of high school as an exchange student in Brazil, I was surprised to find a far different and more relaxed version of Catholicism than I’d been exposed to in the States. Stuff you went to hell for in my home town was given a free pass in my host country, a serious dilemma given the six-week turnaround time on mail (no international phone service), leaving me to grapple on my own as to whether sin was location-related. I also took part in Brazil’s decadent pre-Lenten Carnaval extravaganza and even attended a few macumbas (black magic festivals) out in the jungle. Definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto, I said to myself at the latter.
In my first marriage, I had the opportunity to experience the rich oral history of Judaism in which stories are passed down from generation to generation, always accompanied by lots of good food. I learned to make rugelach, kugel, tzimmes, knishes, latkes and brisket, and for many years cooked a Seder (Passover) dinner for 20. At my first one, I temporarily forgot why only unleavened bread (matzo) is served and put out a basket of rolls. (Rookie goy mistake.)