We’re the only Jews in Pennypack Woods, Pa. We exchange gifts on Christmas with our neighbors and each other, but have never had decorations that look or smell like Christmas.
Except once — when I’m 5.
“Can we please, please have a Christmas tree, Mommy?” I sob. “I’m the only one in our whole neighborhood without Christmas and I feel so left out. We don’t have any holiday, and Christmas is so beautiful.”
My parents finally exchange that look.
“OK, we’ll have a tree — a Chanukah bush. And Nana and Poppop must never know.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you, I’ll never tell, never.” When I hug her, she’s stiff and her heart’s beating fast.
That night, my father brings home a fluffy tree and sets it up in our living room. He uses cardboard, scissors and tin foil to make a shiny six-pointed star for the top. “It’s a Star of David, a Jewish star.” I have no idea what he means.
My mother and I string popcorn and cranberry chains for trimming. I prick my fingers so often they start to bleed, but I don’t complain: we have a tree — a real tree. Strand by strand, we add tinsel, then stand back to admire our creation with sheepish satisfaction.
“What about colored lights? Or candles?” I ask. I’ve studied Christmas trees in people’s windows, and in magazines and Coca Cola ads.
“Do you want to burn down the house?” My mother says, grabbing my arm. “Remember, my father will never forgive me if he even suspects we did this for you. Understand?”
I try to be happy about my sparkly Chanukah bush, but I feel uneasy: I thought it would turn us into a happy family, like the ones on Christmas cards. Instead, we’re still ourselves: a little happy, and kind of sad and worried. And my tree is becoming a magnet for guilt: a reminder of my selfishness.
On Sunday afternoon, the worst happens. A peek through the upstairs curtains reveals Poppop’s shiny gray Chrysler unexpectedly pulling up outside. He paces impatiently on our doorstep, waiting for an answer to his loud knocks.
“Oh, my God,” my mother moans, her face white as our walls.
“Pearl, keep them busy at the front door,” my father says. “Ellen, help me.”
We clatter downstairs. Daddy quickly drags the tree outside where we burn trash. “Ellen, quick! Brush away tinsel, the pine needles.”
I pause to rescue the tinfoil star on the ground and hide it inside my flannel shirt. I race inside, trying to pick up hundreds of bits of tinsel and fragrant pine needles. It’s hopeless: the smell of evergreen would reveal our secret even to the blind.
My muscular grandfather walks into the living room. “What did you do?” he rages at my mother. She shrinks before him like a child. My beautiful Nana hides behind her, wringing her hands, muttering in Yiddish. Poppop puffs up with rage.
“It was a Chanukah bush. We did it for Ellen,” my mother whispers. “She was jealous of the other children. I hated to see her suffer, so…”
“She’s jealous? She’s suffering? There’s no such thing as a Chanukah bush. You just confuse the child. She’s a Jew and Jews don’t have Christmas. Make her Chanukah like a real Jewish mother, and she won’t be jealous.”
“It had a Jewish star on top,” I say, holding it out.
“Puh,” proclaims my grandfather, practically dancing with rage, “meshugenah.”
My father enters the kitchen, bringing a whiff of smoke. I know our tree is now burning like any other trash.
“That’s why we came today, to bring Chanukah,” Nana says timidly, still behind my mother. We brought Chanukah presents for everybody.” She shows us her bulging carryall. “Maybe we can have tea, and the cookies I baked.”
“No tea, no cookies, Sarah. We leave now. Get into the machine.” He grabs the bag from her. “And we don’t leave no presents, not one.”
“Ben, how about a little schnapps first?” my father asks, but Poppop pulls Nana toward the door.
“Puh! We don’t eat in no house with no Chanukah bush. Doesn’t even keep kosher.”
He spits the words at my mother, then walks out the door, Nana waddling after him. I know Poppop will beat her with his belt because of my tree when they get home, just the way he used to beat my mother when she was a little girl.
I watch her pale blue eyes widen as tears slide down her cheeks. My father puts his arm around her shoulders. I stand alone. We don’t move as the shiny gray Chrysler glides into the distance.
Ellen Schecter has published many children’s books. Her first novel, “The Big Idea” (Hyperion), won the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. This essay is adapted from “Fierce Joy,” her memoir published last June by Greenpoint Press.