My Best Christmas was Chanukah

I was never walked into a temple.  Never.  Not by my dad, the Jew.  I thought being Jewish meant eating lox, bagel & cream cheese in a deli.  Because that’s what my dad, the non-religious Jew told me.  When we ate at Nate n’ Al’s, he would announce loudly as he seemed to be pointing to the food, “We’re Jews!!!”

I sang with my friend Cindy Lou Carlson in her church for the Christmas pageant.  Those rehearsals alone put me in a church more times than I was ever in a temple — at least until my kids and step-kids became B’nai Mitzvah.

I’m assuming my mom was some sort of Christian, but your guess is as good as mine.  She never walked us into a church and never spoke of any religion.  So, there you go, two parents – one gentile, one Jewish — who offered zero religious guidance.  We called ourselves half-and-half.  This was pretty commonplace in Beverly Hills, though each family would often choose a side and go to temple or church.  Christmas or Chanukah.

We celebrated Christmas, tree and all.  Show business was up and down and some years we had big-time gifts.  The trees were bigger in those years.  At other times we might have skimpy trees with few gifts.

One year, I scored.  We all scored.  My dad had a friend who had a TV show and he finagled a bunch of freebie popular toys of the day for us.  I coveted Patty Play Pal.  She’s all I ever wanted.  I wonder if there were Chatty Cathy people and Patty Play Pal people.  I just dug how big that doll seemed.  I was little, so for me she was huge.  That year, my mother got her new hi-fi and played it continuously Christmas day.    Holiday paper and ribbon were strewn about as Bobby Darin belted “Mack the Knife.”  And I got my big-ass doll — a new friend in my wonderful fantasy-filled life.  My brother got shit he wanted.  We had pogo sticks and stilts.  We were a very happy family with a house filled-to-the-brim with every hot toy and gadget.

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me and Santa!

But do you know whom I was forever envious of?  The Rutenbergs.  Why? Because they celebrated Chanukah, getting gifts for 8 straight nights.  I was very close with Lori and Lesley Rutenberg and my mother was a friend of their mother’s, Mary Lou.  My brother Alan played baseball with the twin brothers, Bennett and Peter.

One year, my mother made an announcement.  This year, we were to finally celebrate Chanukah.  Oh my fucking God, I have never been more excited.  I was going to get a different gift every single night for 8 nights.  This was a thrilling turn of events.  We celebrated every evening at the Rutenbergs.  One night, I got Play-Doh.  Another, Pick-up Sticks.  Then a “dam-it doll” (Troll doll).  My brother Alan probably got marbles or perhaps a stamp collection book.   Do you get where this is going?  I mean I was the most grateful child for any gift, so I was fully enjoying and loving each night.  But let’s face it these were 8 cheap gifts.  It was not a Patty Play Pal year.  I did, however, really like singing “The Dreidel Song” and getting Chanukah gelt (chocolate covered coins).

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And when my kids have their own blogs, telling their childhood stories, here is one they will more than likely tell.  One year, nothing.  Their mother didn’t go out and buy a single gift.  I couldn’t decide if we were doing Christmas or Chanukah, so we did basically … gornish’d (Yiddish word meaning nothing).  My excuse?  I had no money.  Oh, come on, you can be so creative with no money.  I just got lazy.  And frankly, I’m just always a touch confused during this holiday, not being religious and all.  Random days should be holidays.  All right, enough excuses.  I felt bad on Christmas Day and I sat both my kids down, sort of serious and ceremonial.  I told them I had something VERY special to give them.  I said it again.  “This is VERY special.  You understand how special this gift is about to be?”  I’m building.  They are wide-eyed, small children.  We had two cats, Axel and Algernon.  My kids had these two cats all their lives.  Sitting there, looking into their eyes, (not a tree or a present anywhere) I declared Axel is now “YOURS” to Oliver.  I handed Axel to him.  Then I looked at Augie, handing over her great new Christmas present, telling her Algernon was “HERS”.  They bought it!!!!!  I gave my kids hand-me-down, already-belonging-to-them cats as Christmas gifts.  And they were overjoyed.  Best Christmas ever!  I’m kidding, it wasn’t — but we do laugh about that moment when they play back some of the wacky things I have done as a mother.

Axel and Algernon

Axel and Algernon



Here is what else their mother did.  I made homemade play dough.  It is so much more special than the Chanukah gift I got long ago.  Though I do love the packaging of real Play-Doh.  The little yellow canisters with different colored tops.  Love those.  The smell.  Love that.  But there is nothing like the touch and feel of home-made play dough.

Recipe for Home-Made Play Dough
Home Made Play Dough Recipe
1 cup flour
1/2 cup salt
1 cup water
2 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons cream of tartar
Mix flour, salt and oil, and slowly add the water. Cook over medium heat, stirring until dough becomes stiff. Turn out onto wax paper and let cool. Knead the playdough with your hands until of proper consistency. Add a few drops of food coloring.

Patty Play Pal doll

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11 Responses to “My Best Christmas was Chanukah”

  1. Fredde!
    Thanks for this poignant (whoa what a spelling) story. It made me miss my flawed childhood. Well played!!

  2. Vice says:

    your post is a six flags rollercoatser… i was laughin’ and cryin at the same time! i love you mom! -Vice

  3. Great story. I was always envious of Brook Enders who had a Patty Play Pal doll displayed in her room. I was teased about being a chatty Kathy since Kathy is my name, so I had no need for a Chatty Kathy doll. I was too old for a Patty Play Pal anyways, but your photo of that doll certainly brings back memories of envy. I was envious of all the Jewish kids that got gifts for eight days too. Hope you have a Happy New Year!

  4. Janet Petkin says:

    LMAO !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Pauli says:

    Definitely relate to the bagel & lox story. Religion for my family was sitting down to dinner at 6:00pm every night. I think I have blocked out
    Patty Play Pal for some reason and vaguely remember liking the Chatty Cathy with that pull string thingy in her back. I gave books off our bookshelves wrapped in paper as presents to my family until they finally told me to stop.

    Thanks for the memories and Have a fantastic 2012 Fredde!

  6. Erin says:

    Fredde, omg how I loved this blot post!

  7. Debbie Schellenberg says:

    OK Freddie, so here goes. My first time at a deli was at Nate n Als with you and your Dad when I was in the 5th grade and it was around this time of year. He ordered potato pancakes for us..truly fantastic! I don’t think I have had them since honestly. But today, for some unknown reason, as my very grown kids were decorating for Christmas today (much to their dismay) I made potato pancakes/latkes for the FIRST time in my life, (thank you Ina Gartner and the internet), in duck fat with caviar/creme fraiche and verve clicquot! Absolutely delicious, but my kitchen is a mess!
    all was well, except what a nightmare it is grating and pealing potatoes (OMG).

    So Happy Hannakah, Merry Christmas, and most importantly, ENJOY and be MERRY!!!


  8. Hoov says:

    Ouch. sorry my worse was life flight ing Sheila on Christmas morning and right before we were to load we both said no went back to the house and tried to have a day. Next day I drove her down rather then using a heli Our family still love the day and in the end it is your soul that count. Happy Hanukkah and merry Christmas aloha hoov.

  9. Julie Phalen says:

    That’s how I feel this year, I am lazy! I got my daughter a gift, and my son will tell me what to get him off the internet. I am broke, so nobody is getting anything from me! I am having a wonderful Christmas dinner tonight. ( ham, home made pizza, clam linguine, salad, pecan pie, and pumpkin pie.) My house is decorated to the max. We are having Christmas early cuz my daughter is going to Australia. Food and alot of love will be my gift this year.

  10. Valentina says:

    Fredde, this story of yours hits home with me: I was also half & half, with two non-religious parents. We celebrated Xmas, but I too envied my ALL Jewish friends for 8 nites of gifts (despite the fact my mother usually gave me more than my share of gifts). No one took me to church so I spent way more time in temples (at Bar Mitzvahs).

    Was the Patty Play Pal the almost-lifesize one? Got a photo of me with mine somewhere…

    @ Debbie S – I love making latkes and homemade applesauce.

  11. Linda says:

    A story by Fredde AND a picture of kitties … purr-fect.

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