Christmas wasn’t a holiday we celebrated when I was growing up, we didn’t have a tree or exchange gifts, but we certainly got into its joyful spirit. Ours was a close family, and we spent just about every day and evening together for that week. Good times, good food and much laughter is what I remember.
Like all kids, I looked forward to being out of school for a
week or so and prayed fervently for snow so I could enjoy an endless round of skating, skiing and tobogganing. The weatherman and Mother Nature always seemed to oblige and we could usually count on at least one blizzard which, much to all the kids’ delight, resulted in our being buried under a couple of feet of the white stuff for days on end.
Back then it was bliss. Now, not so much.
The season was always kicked off with the informal Christmas lunch my father and grandfather had for their staff. It always took place at noon on Christmas Eve day — just before everyone took off until the New Year.
Tables and desks were shoved together, covered with festive tablecloths and laden, from end to end, with platters of food. Whole smoked turkeys, every kind of deli meat, lots of different salads, bread, fruit, cookies, cakes, boxes of chocolate and drinks.
We’d all go — my grandmother, aunts, cousins, my mother and me. It was a tradition that started before I was born and lasted until my dad sold the business not long before he passed. By then I had moved from Montreal to Toronto, my grandparents were gone and so were many of the employees I’d grown up knowing all of my life. Most of them had worked for the company pretty much all of their adult lives — 20, 30 even 40-plus years. In some ways, they’d become extended family.
They’re all gone now, most of my family are gone, the business is no more, but the building — which was built, brick by brick, by my great grandfather and his brother — is, believe it or not, still standing. It’s now an event space and one of my cousins had her wedding celebration party there this past summer. Talk about going full circle.
While I’ve shared many a wonderful Christmas with good friends and their families over the years, I think those years, the innocent, carefree, fun-filled times from my childhood, are among my fondest.
But interestingly enough, one of my most cherished memories of Chanukah is much more recent, from 2008. It was our first full day in India. A long time friend (whose parents were friends of my parents from the time I was an infant) and her husband were living in Delhi at the time, which is where our month-long trip began.
She, my friend, kindly offered to take us out for the day, to visit many of the sites that tourists rarely get to see. In return, my travel agent invited her and her husband to join us for dinner.
As our fabulous day was coming to an end my friend asked if we’d like to join her that evening at her synagogue. It was the last night of Chanukah and they were having a special service. Needless to say, we all enthusiastically said yes — not so much because of the religious significance but because it would be an unusual and interesting experience.
And what a wonderful and memorable evening it turned out to be. I’d never seen such a tiny synagogue before — it was the size of a small suburban bungalow, with a congregation to match — just 12 people — not just in attendance that night — just 12 people were members, period. They didn’t even have a real rabbi. The acting rabbi was a lawyer and a member of the congregation.
It was touching to see how important it was to them, to carry on the traditions and practices of their religion, even if there were so few of them.
But what was most moving were the number of visitors that night — not just us, but also a lot of non-Jewish locals who had come to show their support for the Jewish community, in response to the terrorist attacks two weeks earlier in Mumbai. Strangers hugging strangers in solidarity and sympathy.
Unlike what I’m used to here, where you just sit, observe and listen to the rabbi, we were all invited to participate in the service — which culminated with everyone moving outdoors, to the back yard, where we all lit little lights before the service concluded and we went on our way.
No latkes that year, but we did have a delicious Thai dinner at one of the restaurants in our hotel. A wonderful kick-off to an outstanding trip; and one of my most treasured memories.