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More Light! More Light!

by on December 12, 2018 5:00 AM

As best as I can recall, I stalked and slew my first Christmas tree in 1987. Before that I was a not terribly observant Jewish gentleman who had beheld the rituals of Christmas from afar.

Then I took up with a shiksa – that’s a non-Jewish woman to all you goyim out there – and the two of us had a daughter and then another daughter and then a son on whom we agreed to lavish latkes and Peeps and Advent calendar chocolates and matzoh balls in equal measure. And so, despite having grown up on knishes and kreplach and kneidlach, I joined the hunt for the perfect conifer on the tree farms of Northern California and then Central Pennsylvania.

The Jewish part of our more-holidays-the-merrier policy wasn’t easy, at first. We were living in Sonora, Calif., a town whose Jewish population was only slightly larger than the Jewish population of Jupiter. When I popped into the general merchandise store on the main drag and told the manager, who also happened to be the mayor, that I was looking for a menorah, he said, euphoniously, “A menorah? You’re not going to find a menorah in Sonora.” He was right. I didn’t.

So I improvised candle holders out of aluminum foil until I could find an artisanal-quality candelabrum in the big city. And yes, alert readers, I have told the menorah-in-Sonora story in a column before. Think of it as one of those seasonal tales that must be told and retold to keep the sun, the moon and the stars in their proper alignment.


As best as I can recall, I have put up a Christmas tree every year since 1987 except 2012, when I spent the season in Ukraine. And for all 30 of those years, even after the oldest child, then the middle one, and then the youngest flew the coop, at least one of them has returned to the nest for this cheery ritual.

Until this year. I can’t complain – I’m going to see all of them next week, plus Grandbaby Penelope, who will be making her holiday debut – but it was lonesome getting and trimming the tree without the troops.

Also more work. My job was always to cut down the tree, bring it into the house, spring its branches from their twiny cage and bang it into its stand. The kids’ job was to garland it with lights and hang the ornaments.

Apart from the absence of the bambini, my wife (a different shiksa) and I did what my family has always done: dressed the tree while listening to Eartha Kitt, Pearl Bailey, Louis Armstrong and the rest of the “Hipster’s Holiday” crew. Most years, we drink Meyer Dairy eggnog. This year we switched to Irish coffee, and because it was the first night of Hanukkah, after our date with the boogie-woogie Santa Claus we switched to the Barcelona Gipsy Klezmer Orchestra to reassure my angsty ancestors that I hadn’t wholly gone over to the other side.

Oh, and we also plugged in the electric menorah with the mismatched light bulbs and hung the string of menorah lights from the curtain rod over the living room windows. Then, because this is the 21st century, we took a photo of the whole twinkly assemblage and sent it to the kids along with a text telling them how much we missed them.


That night I made disastrous latkes. Maybe not disastrous, but well below the standard set by my Grandma Yetta, may she rest in peace (it says in the Talmud that all Jewish families must have a Yetta, a Rose or a Tillie). Where I went wrong: I gave in to my deep fear of deep-frying and cooked the latkes on the electric pancake griddle instead. They lacked that sealed-in-ness that you only get from sizzling in a cooking oil bath. Live and learn.

Fortunately, my friend Pearl hosted her annual vodka-latke party later in the week, so I got my Yetta-quality potato pancake fix after all.

Vodka-latke gave me an idea for a follow-up party later this winter. There’s a brand of Scotch called Auchentoshan and a filled triangular pastry that’s eaten at Purim time called a hamentashen. So: an Auchentoshan-hamentashen party. As Grandma Yetta used to say, what could be bad? Look for the evite in March.

Purim, by the way, celebrates a narrow escape from a maniac who had threatened to kill all the Jews. What else is new, right?

Ah me. And I was so close to getting through this twinkly column without letting the darkness outside the living room window obtrude. Well, this is exactly why we need those twinkly lights.

Which brings me to my sentimental sendoff: Hug your dear ones, count your blessings, do what you can to keep the darkness at bay, and, in the words of that great hipster Louis Armstrong, have a Yule that’s cool.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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