"Your father is Jewish," she said. "And your mother is a Catholic."
She wasn't telling me anything I didn't know -- you end up learning those kinda demarcations early on. You know it when your ma keeps quiet during Passover, and you know it when your dad roots tirelessly against Notre Dame. And you know it when all your friends are forced to go to one Sunday school or another, but you can simply tell your parents you don't want to -- and it flies. I knew full well what my parents were.
But then the woman, this slightly rotund, floral print-wearing Jewish lady, dropped a bomb on me: "You're nothing."
Apparently, to really be a Catholic (or at least half of one), your father needs to be. And you're officially Jewish only if your mother is. So I was nothing. No more half-and-half stuff. No longer a religious hybrid. Nothing.
I should've known.
Iíve never had a Christmas tree. I rarely lit menorah candles, and when I did, the TV was probably on and bacon might as well have been frying in the kitchen. I never got one present each night, never had to painfully spread the gifts out like Moses had to with the oil (it was Moses, right?).
But my family, like every family, had its own particular traditions.
Chanukah was as close as I ever came to Christmas. My dad's side of the family gathered every year, usually on the Saturday after the last of the eight nights (read: as close to the 25th as we could get). It was a tradition of sorts; the presents piled up in my grandma's musty living room, my uncle Robert hunkered down in their midst, defending the pile from the kids while handing out gifts. A bracelet for my sister. A tennis racket for my cousin. A massage for my mother. We went one by one, dragging out that kind of day exactly as you should.
Christmas was a totally different story. I used to brag to my friends that since I belonged to two faiths I got twice the gifts, and, unlike most of the other stuff I bragged about, it was true. But Christmas morning was never a large family affair. My dad, if he stayed at all, stayed out of the way (this is the same guy who yells "fucking Christmas" if he gets cut off on the way to work).
It was just me and mom. We didn't need a tree (not that my dad would've gone for one anyway). We played hot and cold. She would hide gifts around the house and follow me as I searched, giving me little clues. Most of the presents were from a joke shop in Seattle that she'd loved as a kid.
For Chanukah I got sweaters and footballs. For Christmas I got punching nuns.
The whole thing would be over in less than half an hour, and we would slip easily into whatever lazy activity followed. But it was important to her. It wasn't the Christmas she'd had as a kid, but I don't think she cared much. It was a Christmas -- her kid's Christmas -- and she was proud of it.
These will be my first holidays in Florida, but that's all right -- back home the kids have grown up and the big family events have faded away. I don't have anything all that special planned. No menorah. No tree. Just a couple of friends and a few good ol' non-denominational gifts for each other.
And that'll be fine. It's my version of the holidays -- and to do it right, you need next to nothing.
Max Linsky is a staff writer at Creative Loafing's sister paper, the Weekly Planet in Tampa.