HOLIDAY MEMORIES by Miko Johnston

Miko first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from New York University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. She is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series; Book III – The Great War has just been released and is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington.

 

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I grew up in 1950s Brooklyn, in an ethnically mixed neighborhood of mostly Irish-Catholic and Jewish households like mine. Living in a community where part of the population celebrated Christmas and part didn’t made the holiday challenging for Jewish families. We may have been religious enough to keep a kosher home, observe the holidays and go to Temple, but we also watched television, listened to the radio, and read the same newspapers and magazines as everyone else. Therefore we couldn’t avoid Christmas, which in this country was beginning to be celebrated less like a religious holiday and more like a national day of celebration. Jesus never drank Coca Cola, but Santa Claus did. He apparently preferred the soft drink to his traditional beverage, milk.

I don’t recall when I first became conscious of Christmas. I knew my family didn’t celebrate the holiday. I figured that was one of the reasons we lived in our apartment. It had no fireplace to hang stockings, not a problem for Jewish tenants. I remember my mother taking me to see Santa at Macy’s Herald Square – yes, the one from the movie – shortly after I turned four. She didn’t prepare me at all for the visit, but as I waited on line, another parent instructed her child, “Don’t pull on Santa’s beard.” I clearly recall sitting on Santa’s lap and seeing tiny cross stitches on the beard along his cheeks. I felt very sorry for him. I thought his beard had been sewn onto his face.

When Santa asked me, “What do you want for Christmas?” the question took me aback. I blurted, “I’m Jewish.” Without missing a beat, he asked, “What do you want for Hanukah?” I recited my wish list.

Jewish parents usually fell into one of two camps: surrender or compensate. The former would succumb to buying a Christmas tree, or the more guilt-inducing Hanukah bush. The latter would remind their kids that at Hanukah, you got eight presents, one for each night of the holiday. Granted, seven of them were usually practical things like socks, or small, inexpensive items, with the big finale – the toy or game – on day eight. But it sounded better than getting only one gift.

My parents were big babies. They lacked the patience to dole out presents one day at a time, which led to an innovative way to counter some of the draw of Christmas. It began in 1957, the year I turned six and my kid brother was old enough to comprehend the joy of receiving. That’s when we learned of the existence of an amazing magical being: The Hanukah Man.

The Hanukah Man would show up every year on the first night of Hanukah, bringing gifts to my brother and me. Hanukah usually began on a school day, so when we arrived home from class we were always thrilled to learn he’d stopped by earlier in the day. Naturally, my curiosity about him grew with each year, until I longed to see him, catch him in the act. Whenever Hanukah fell on a weekend, I would stay home and wait for him to show up. I’d wait and wait. Then my parents would suggest I go downstairs to wish a happy Hanukah to my aunt, uncle and cousins, who lived in the apartment below ours. I’d rush down, not wanting to miss the Hanukah Man’s arrival. But wouldn’t you know it? No matter how little or long I waited to leave, how quickly I dashed to my aunt and uncle’s apartment and back, I’d just miss him. Sometimes by only a minute! Still, how could I stay upset for long when my home was filled with presents?

Now came the fun part. The Hanukah Man never left packages in one spot. He would hide them throughout the apartment, in places we could reach without causing any damage to us or the furnishings. Wasn’t he thoughtful? But I still wanted to see him, although part of me feared that if I ever did, he would stop coming. Maybe that’s why I don’t recall asking my parents what he looked like. Instead I made up his appearance in my imagination. Average height, with brown hair, slender body and lots of agility. He dressed in ordinary clothes so no one would suspect who he really was. Brown corduroy pants, tattersall shirt and a camel cardigan, as I recall. No hat.

As soon as we knew he’d arrived, my brother and I would tear through the house, opening drawers, looking under the bed, crawling beneath tables and chairs, and poking through closets in our search for presents. The Hanukah Man never wrapped them, but that was okay. The surprise wasn’t in the opening, but in the finding. Then we’d compare our loot. One year, months after the holiday, I looked for something in a drawer and found a previously undiscovered gift. It even surprised my mother, who had apparently lost track of what the Hanukah Man had hidden.

I once mentioned the Hanukah Man to some kids in school. Their reaction made me feel embarrassed. I wouldn’t talk about him after that except in the safety of my family.

I never had children, nieces or nephews, so I couldn’t continue the tradition of The Hanukah Man, but he lives on in spirit. I married a grandpa, and when our grandchildren were young, interfamily relations became tricky for a while. My husband and I didn’t want to make their parents’ lives more difficult, so we told them we’d come to celebrate and exchange presents whenever it was convenient, which usually meant days after Christmas. By that time, the grandkids had received gifts from their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and two other sets of grandparents. But no one except Grandma Miriam would come over and hide their presents throughout the house, sending the three youngest to search high and low for every wrapped box and gift bag. They’d bring whatever they’d found back to the living room, and then open their gifts.

I don’t know if any of them will continue that tradition, but hopefully they will at least have some good memories. It brought me joy to share this tradition with them, not as the receiver, but in the way my parents enjoyed it. Which is why the Hanukah Man will always be special to me.

10 thoughts on “HOLIDAY MEMORIES by Miko Johnston”

  1. I love this post. What a delightful tradition your parents began, and how special that you continued it with your grandchildren. My family’s tradition was to have different grown-ups don a Santa Claus mask, and, beginning on Thanksgiving night, peek in the window at the kids. Then another grown-up would admonish us kids, “Look! Santa’s watching! Be good!!” It was generally good for at least a few days of better behavior on our part. When I grew up, I had the dubious pleasure of playing Santa for my cousin’s children, who were determined to one day catch Santa in the act. My biggest fear was being discovered, but I was always able to flee before the kids reached the front door. I think those kids are now playing Santa for their kids.

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  2. Tradition. I can’t think of that word without hearing the tune from Fiddler on the Roof. What is a family without tradition? And what a nice legacy to pass on to younger members of the family. I hope those grand-kids have a copy of this story to treasure and to pass along to the next generation. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. I love your memory story. And in these days of healthy slimness, your Hanukah Man would have been very trending. You could turn this memory into a lovely short story for kids. Or a poem such as “It Was The Night Before Christmas,” only for Hanukah. Or expand it into a seasonal article in a magazine.

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