When I was a child, Christmas made me sad. I looked forward to the two weeks' vacation from school, but since my family was Jewish, I missed being part of that joyous season.
My parents tried to console my twin sister, Enid, and me by making a party of each of the eight days of Hanukkah. We had presents, ate holiday meals with latkes (potato pancakes) as a special treat, and played dreidel games. No matter. Hanukkah could not, in my eyes, make up for missing out on Christmas.
The days are short in December, and already it would be dark when I walked home from school. Nearly every window on my street displayed a Christmas tree, its lights twinkling in the dusk. I loved those trees.
"Can't we have a Christmas tree?" I asked my father. "Just a small one? I'll keep it in my room. No one will see it."
My father refused. "It's not our holiday," he said. "We can enter into the spirit, but we cannot celebrate Christmas."
It was not that I envied the presents piled under the trees of all my friends. It was the spirit of Christmas that filled me with longing, the "peace on earth, good will to men" feeling that was in the air, the music, the smell of pine and cinnamon. I felt sad and angry that, because I was a Jewish child, I could not enter into the celebration of Christmas.
When I was 12, a new girl came to our school. Maxine Connor was my age, a redhead with glasses, so shy that she never recited in class unless called upon.
She always had the right answer, though, and her compositions were always read aloud by the teacher. Maxine seemed lonely. She ate lunch by herself and didn't have anyone to walk down the hall with between classes. I decided to be her friend, and we soon became very close. Maxine told me her family came from Ireland, that her father was dead, and that her mother was very ill.
My mother told me that Maxine and her mother were on welfare. No one at school knew this. We all seemed the same because we all wore uniforms - dark skirts or pants and white shirts for girls and boys - and ate hot lunches in the cafeteria.
Maxine and I had long talks after school. She would come to my house for an hour or so (she had to be home to help her mother cook dinner), and we'd lie across the beds and tell each other our secrets.
Christmas neared, and I complained to Maxine that our family couldn't have a Christmas tree. She shrugged.
"We won't be celebrating Christmas this year," she said. I knew why. They were poor and her mother was sick. I felt terribly sad for her. I asked her to have dinner with us during Hanukkah, but she said she couldn't leave her mother alone in the evening.
A few days before Christmas, a week after Hanukkah, Maxine asked if I'd come to her house for Christmas dinner. Enid, too, she said. Her mother would cook a turkey, and it would be more like Christmas to have company.
"Of course you can go," my mother said.
Enid and I discussed Christmas gifts for Maxine and her mother. We decided that, since we got two of every gift at Hanukkah, we could share one and give the duplicate to Maxine and her mother. We bought Christmas paper and wrapped the gifts.
On Christmas Eve, we walked to Maxine's through frosty, silent streets, holy, I felt, with Christmas. From every window, lights shone and winked. We brought the gifts in a shopping bag and took turns carrying a high, white cake Mother had baked that day.
The Connors' living room was lit by a small tree and a fire in the fireplace. We put our gifts under the tree. In the dining room, the table was set for four and lit with candles. The small, shadowy apartment seemed warm and cozy. I was glad there were no bright lights.
We ate turkey, baked sweet potatoes, creamed spinach, a green salad, and Mother's cake. We toasted Christmas. After dinner, Maxine's mother left to lie down, and we cleared the table and stacked the dishes. Mrs. Connor wouldn't let us wash them.
Enid had brought her tape recorder, so we went into the living room and talked and listened to music. We were getting ready to go home at 10 o'clock when Mrs. Connor came out of her bedroom.
"God bless you girls for making our Christmas Eve so beautiful," she said. "Maxine and I have a gift for each of you." She gave us each a thick, square envelope.
We thanked them for a delicious dinner and wished them a happy Christmas.
"Shalom," Enid said at the door.
"It means 'peace,' " I said.
It had started to snow. Up the street some small children, shepherded by adults, were singing Christmas carols at an open door. The light streaming out of the house wrapped them in gold.
At home, Enid and I opened our gifts. They were photographs, different poses, of a family standing in sunshine in front of a large white house. The pictures were in handmade frames of white cardboard decorated with tiny drawings of animals, flowers, and angels. On the backs of the pictures was written, "This is Maxine Connor's family in Kirk, Ireland." There was an address.
I lay in bed that night, my heart overflowing with joy. Enid and I had made Christmas happy for Maxine and her mother, even though it wasn't our holiday. And for the first time in my life, I felt that although a Jewish girl cannot celebrate Christmas, she can be part of its warm spirit.