THE FIRST CHRISTMAS
Christmas is a wonderful concept! I wonder who conceived it. As far as I can calculate, I was conceived at Christmas time. I like to think ‘twas Christmas Eve, in 1936. And I was born nine months, less one week later, on September 18, 1937. Sometimes, from the precarious way I misfit into the Birnkrant Family, I wonder, too, who conceived me.
Of all the Gifts my Father gave me, I think the best of all was Christmas. It bathed my life in a kind of everlasting glow of Magic that transcends and transforms commonplace reality. Yes, Christmas was his gift to me, and, ultimately, to all the nieces and nephews who followed me, including some who were not yet born into the Birnkrant family.
It might surprise my many cousins, if they knew that it was not my Mother, Leila, the “Shiksa” (God, how I hate that expression!) who brought Christmas to the Family; it was my Father, their “Uncle Sam”, the Jew. In the house, in whitch my Mother grew up, Christmas would have been a serious and somber affair, as stern and joyless as her Stepfather, the Honorable Reverend Heckingbottom, himself, was inclined to be. And I think it's also safe to speculate that in the house of my Father’s family, the Birenkrantz residence, even though, there were 13 children, there was, definitely, no Christmas tree.
Now sit back, Dear Reader, and I shall tell you how Uncle Sam became Father Christmas, and how it all began, as an act of both defiance and compliance.
Let me take you back to my childhood in the early 1940s. From the age of two, until I was five, my parents rented a house in a place called Berkley, somewhere north of Detroit, along that boulevard of dreams, known to all Detroiters as Woodward Avenue. My world was very tiny then, and so was I. It was the world of Dick and Jane. That grade school reader was stark reality to me. And the entire Universe, in those days, extended only as far as I could see, from east to west, along my quiet street.
Here is a, somewhat, haunting picture of my childhood house in winter. If you look very carefully, you will discover a small lonely figure in the snow. That’s me.
Standing outside, in better weather, and looking left, beside the road, I could see the sidewalk narrow to Infinity and vanish at the Vanishing point. I often stood there for hours, contemplating that ribbon of concrete, studying the cracks and lines, and the blades of grass that sprouted in-between. I wondered where it led, and what miracles, or nightmares, lay beyond the point at which the sidewalk vanished.
But looking in the opposite direction, way down the street, I could see “IT”, towering above the trees, the ominous phallic edifice, erected to God’s glory that cast its malevolent shadow over my childhood. Just across Woodward Avenue, where my familiar sidewalk ended, stood the Shrine of the Little Flower.
And so “Religion” raised its ugly head and invaded my small domain. I had no idea what was hiding there in that place of forbidden mystery. But I knew that it was powerful. And I also knew that the frightening entity, hanging from that terrible tower, did not like me. The others went there every Sunday, but not me. The neighborhood children had warned me that I could never enter there, because I was "Jewish". None of us knew what “Jewish” meant. We only knew it was the "reason" they were not allowed to play with me.
As the scary chiseled face of Jesus stared down upon me menacingly, I knew I didn’t want to go there, anyway. But I did wish, desperately, that he would let the other children play with me.
It was most curious, really. It was not that they disliked me, nor was I offended, sad, or angry. It was just the way things were, on my little street in Berkley, in 1940. And we all accepted it and worked around it.
Like, for instance, when the kids across the street gave a puppet show, featuring a pair of Dutch boy and Dutch girl puppets, [They were Hazel's Marionettes; there was a big display of then at J.L. Hudson's] while all the other kids could come inside, I was allowed to stand outside, and watch through the small windows of the big French doors. I was not unhappy or upset. I just accepted it. And I was, in fact, quite grateful to be there. I imagine there was a time when many black folks in the South felt that way as well, just glad to have a drinking fountain of their own, or be allowed to ride the bus at all.
I did have one friend; his name was Michael Wondrock. Although, he was not Jewish, he was the only one allowed to play with me. His signature expression, which my mother often imitated, was "Me do dat!" I sometimes crossed the street to play with him. He had a sandbox.
While I accepted this state of affairs, as just how things were meant to be, my Father was determined to fight back. And what he did was quite extraordinary. As Christmas 1941 approached, and bombs were falling on Pearl Harbor, up on our rooftop, Santa Claus appeared. He was apparently about to descend into our chimney, while eight flat plywood reindeer waited patiently. And, in the yard below, big fat Christmas bulbs of the outdoor variety, burst forth and blossomed on every bush and tree. On the front door, there hung a chubby Christmas wreath. And in every window, a cardboard candle, with a single flame shaped light bulb, glowed.
And in the living room, OH! The first of a long line of Birnkrant Christmas trees appeared. Beside it, stood Santa Claus, himself, life-sized and beautifully lithographed on cardboard, his finger forever posed beside his nose, just as it was, before "up the chimney he rose".
I cannot say enough about that wondrous tree, and the many more that followed, every year, thereafter. They remain forever vivid in my memory. The decorations, by the way, were not of the common variety. Such things were not sold in stores in 1940. Sam, whose middle name should have been, "I can get it for you wholesale", gathered these decorations directly from commercial display firms, one step removed from the North Pole. And no one in the neighborhood had ever seen the likes of them before!
One might say a Christmas Miracle occurred. Overnight, our house became the place to be at Christmas, and neighbors came from far and wide to see the tree. And, best of all, from that time forward, all the neighbors loved us. And they shouted out with glee, Samuel the Jewish Santa, you overcame our bigotry! I'm joking about that, but as simplistic as it sounds, that is, essentially, what happened. From that Christmas on, I was accepted. And as the kids in the neighborhood gathered round our tree, Sam, who was a kid himself, took photos with his “Brownie” and generously showered them with Christmas candy.
I have often thought about that moment in time, and the miraculous way it appeared to work out. On the brink of the Second World War, anti-Semitism was rampant everywhere, even in America. But nowhere had it infected our society, perhaps, as virulently as in Berkley. I didn’t realize it at the time, or for many years thereafter, but my little childhood neighborhood was, in fact, the very epicenter of anti-Semitism in the USA.
This revelation was brought home to me, just recently, by a TV show about America’s most notorious anti-Semite, Father Charles E. Coughlin, Pastor of The Shrine of the Little Flower. HUH? His weekly radio show spewed anti-Semitic hatred to 30 million listeners, World-wide, throughout the 1930s and the Second World War.
Meanwhile, little Melvyn Birnkrant was living right next door.
Looking back, now, I guess my Father knew. He also seemed, intuitively, to know just what to do, a simple solution for simple people. To this day, I really do not know if what he did was innocently naive, or cunningly clever. I do know that it was controversial. My Uncle Mark, the most religious Birnkrant brother, railed against it. Whether Sam was selling out to the enemy, or outwitting them, matters little now, for it worked. And so, this Happy Ending became a Happier Beginning, for with it came the Gift of Christmas.
And so, the Christmas tradition that began in Berkley continued, and moved with us to Seven Mile Road. And thus, it came to be that every year on Christmas Day, all the Birnkrant aunts, uncles and cousins, still living in Detroit, came to our house to celebrate. Sam had given them the Gift of Christmas, too. And with each successive year, the Birnkrant Family Christmas tree grew bigger and fatter, just like me.
One year, when I was 11, Santa brought me a Polaroid camera. In 1949, it was the cutting edge of technology. Of course, I pointed it at my two favorite subjects, the Christmas tree, itself, and my best friend “Snauzer”, asleep, under the tree. He loved Christmas as much as me.
And finally, here is the Last and Final Christmas Tree, full grown, full blown, in all its Glory, the sum total, till then, of a young lifetime of adoring Christmas. Laden with ornaments, collected carefully, and added to, from tree to tree, culminating in this, the Tree of Trees, with bubble lights, bubbling, and heavy lead tinsel, each strand hung perfectly, twinkling at the slightest breeze.
And when all the trimming was done, and a clean white bed sheet, covered in cotton was carefully laid upon the floor, the finished tree was showered, lovingly, with handful after handful of precious mica snowflakes, on the brink of obsolescence, even then. I can see them flying now, flashing and sparkling, like a million tiny diamonds in mid air, then finally settling on the branches and the cotton down below, to create the perfect illusion of new fallen snow.
And all the while, all through the years, half hidden by the branches of a tree as wide as it is tall, he is still standing there, Jolly old Saint Nicholas, life-sized and a little the worse for wear; his finger, still posed beside his nose, just as it was, before "up the chimney he rose" on a night before Christmas, so many years ago.
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT