Bernstein is a Jewish name. Although our family was Jewish, Christmas was in different ways a part of my childhood and adolescence. As an adult I spent the better two parts of two decades as a Christian, first in the Episcopal and then the Orthodox Church. Even since I left, first to Judaism and then to a Quaker Meeting, it has played a role in my life.
This dia4y will be a personal looking back. It is not that my experiences are so note-worthy. But there is a theme that will be evident.
I invite you to keep reading, even if you don't really care for the Holiday.
When we were small - I was three and my sister was 5 - we had a tree and gifts in our house. It was about Santa Claus, because my parents did not think we would be able to understand why some of the other children in our neighborhood had trees and got gifts - even one Jewish family across the street.
Within a few years that had to stop. My father regretted that he could not put lights on the beautiful blue spruce trees on our property, because the rabbi moved in down the block, and we were members of the newly formed Larchmont Temple at which he served.
But Christmas became a part of our lives in other ways. We got our first tv in the late fall of the 1951, just in time for the world premiere of a major cultural event. Here is the remastered audio from the beginning of that 1951 performance:
And here is some video from a more recent performance:
Amahl and the Night Visitors became a part of our Christmases. It was a story about the giving of gifts, of generosity. Later I would play in the orchestra while the local Presbyterian Church performed it.
Ours was a musical family. We were of an age when there was not the sensitivity about singing Christmas carols in public schools, even though Murray Avenue Elementary, where we attended, had a significant portion of its student body which was Jewish. My sister and i loved to sing carols.
When we children, New York City still had a morning paper called The Herald Tribune which for the season ran a charity called The Fresh Air Fund, to raise money so inner city kids could have a chance to attend camp.
My sister and I decided we could combine our love of singing and of carols with doing good work. We went around our neighborhood ringing the bells of houses decorated for Christmas and sing some carols. I don't remember whether we wore or carried signs indicating that we were collecting for the Fresh Air Fund, but we regularly got small contributions, and occasionally larger ones - in the mid-195-s a $5 bill was a generous gift.
In the early years one parent would go with us.
Then we began to be joined by friends. I remember in particular my sister's friend Karen Suzuki and my friend Stephen Madey, who recently sent me a Facebook Message remembering that caroling. Some years we would go from our house to Karen's, where her parents would offer us traditional Japanese delicacies, other years we would go from hers to ours, where we would have hot chocolate and toast marshmellows in the fireplace. We would enjoy quietly, having done our part to bring joy to people not only by the joy of our singing, but in the money we raised so that other young people, not so fortunate as we were, would be able to have some fresh air and some experience of a world not defined by pavement and buildings.
I first attended church as a seeker the 4th Sunday in Advent in 1973. I had just had a relationship breakup, I was shattered, and the professor who had been my freshman year adviser in 1963, music professor John Davison, suggested I come to church with him. Later that day I was in desperate need to talk with someone, to have some connection with something holy. Out of not knowing better I called the rectory of that Church, the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont PA, and the Rev. George William Rutler asnwered the phone. Christmas was but a few days away, but somehow not only was he home, he had the time to spend with a stranger who was shattered and needed to talk and be counseled. He gave me the gift of his time.
I found myself drawn to that church, and was there shortly after Christmas, for a small service in the Lady Chapel, when a family came in, the man explaining that his mother-in-law was dying and they wanted to do prayers for her, because she was not expected to make it until morning. The man would later become my father-in-law, and among his children was the not quite 17-year-old who would in 1985 become officially my partner for eternity, although we committed to one another well before that.
The next year I asked to be allowed to read a passage for the Christmas Eve service. It was a Jewish text, one which I knew well because of my love for and involvement with music. I had learned to love part of it in this setting:
Over the years I would help the family into which I would marry organize and prepare for Christmas. That became a part of my season.
Later, during the years I attended a small orthodox church in Wallingford Penna, some of the families there would ensure I was included in their Christmas celebrations as well - the Krowzows for Holy Supper before our Christmas Eve service, the Motels for Christmas dinner. They did not want me to be alone on that holiday, even though they knew I could participate in some of the celebration of my future wife's family. I experienced the generosity of the season from others.
And again, music was a part of it, as I was the choir director of that Church. The priest allowed me to bring in some music from the Western Church - things like this:
Later I would leave Christianity and for a while return to Judaism. We still for a while would have a tree in our home, and we came to have only blue lights on it, no white lights, and not too many ornaments. We had to give up the tree when the feline population of the house became too fascinated by the ornaments.
But there was something else that was a part of this time, at least for a while. We live a very short distance from a Hospice. I would volunteer there on Christmas so that employees could have the time with their family.
And now? I still believe in the music, which I love. For me it is not yet Christmas until I hear this:
Of greater importance, even though I do not celebrate Christmas per se, there is another task that I will do. It has to do with giving.
Tomorrow I will sit down with a stack of index cards. On each I will on one side write the name of a student. On the other I will write something I appreciate about that student. Call it my gift to them, a gift of an appreciation of her or him, whether or not s/he celebrates this holiday or not.
For our celebration we have appropriated the figure of a real person. Our Santa Clause can be traced to the Bishop Nicholas of Myra in Lycea, about whom the most relevant tale was his secretly giving three purses full of gold to a family with three daughters that could not afford dowries for them, which meant not only could they not marry, they would probably have to become prostitutes.
There was no benefit to Nicholas in that giving.
The lesson, if any, is that we should give of ourselves, even if we have little, on behalf of others.
This giving does not have to be done only at this time, although this is in our society a most appropriate time.
Not just to our fellow humans. In our household the cats also get to celebrate. Tonight they will have human tuna, which they love. Tomorrow they will share my roast. If they want to crawl on top of me, that will take priority over anything else I might be attempting to do.
I could reflect on the theology of this holiday. I remember a phrase from an early Christian Father, Athanasius, that had the idea that God became man so that men could becomes like Gods, divinized. I take that like this - the greatest gift one can give is freedom to another. We can do this many ways. Any gift we give we surrender, we are owed nothing in return, ikt should be an act of pure love.
And pure love is focused not on what we do, but on the other towards whom that love is directed.
When I was young our parents gave my sister and myself the gift of Christmas, of Santa Claus.
We soon learned the importance was not what we received, but what we gave to others, thus my sister and I began our process of caroling. We gave the gift of joyful music, and in return others gave to the Fresh Air fund.
The Krowzows and the Motels gave the warmth of their families so that on this most familial of the Christian holidays I would feel embraced by family.
What I give is not much - some words on an index card, that my students will receive in January. It will still be Christmastide, with epiphany falling 3 days after our return to school.
Today, tonight, tomorrow, I will enjoy my strongest connection to this celebration, that of music. My life will be surrounded by it.
And love - the love of our felines, who do not know other than how to love without limit.
The love of my spouse.
The love I feel for my friends.
Sitting as I finish writing this in my local Starbucks, I see a father with his young daughter, she is delightedly reading aloud from a book, and looked up and smiled at me when i came in. I see people who were friends from school getting together as they are home from college. Others stop here during the process of finishing their preparations - some have already been shopping, others are heading out.
I have one shopping stop to make, for birdseed and corn for the creatures, avian and otherwise, that frequent our property. They brighten my existence, and i want to thank them.
And I want to thank those here, whose generosity never fails to amaze me. I see it in the care expressed in IGTNT, in Sara R's quilt diaries, in the emotional support given exmearden, Kitsap River, rserven and others.
At our best, it is the concern for those anywhere, not just in our electronic community or our nation, in need. Our concerns and our willingness to learn, to serve, is part of what keeps me attached to this community.
That has been a gift to me. So has the acceptance of the words I offer. So has the acceptance I have seen given towards others.
Bernstein's memories of Christmas is not a closed book. This year, and each year, will add more to its text. Next year I can include in such memories my writing of this diary, and the other events of this day, those that affect me directly and those that I observe.
On this day many years ago, a Church organist picked up a guitar and created a melody for a text written by the pastor. That evening, it was performed for the first time.
It is perhaps the most beloved of the songs of this season, and it seems appropriate to end a piece in which I discuss music a s major part of my Christmas memories with its sounds. I have already offered above my wish of piece. So simply accept and enjoy this: