Probably due to their unique perspectives, every religion tends to baffle outsiders.
It's like families: If it's your family, you understand the dynamics, humor, history, mores and manners perfectly. If you weren't born into that tribe, they might as well be invaders from the Pleiades.
They're too uptight at the dinner table; too loose at the beach; weird about politics; humorless about comedy - basically as understandable to you as the music of John Cage is to a 14-year-old headbanger.
Which is why Christmas was a mystery to a Jewish kid (namely me) living in a 98 percent Christian town (namely Saranac Lake). Not that I disliked it - I just didn't understand it.
I knew there was something miraculous about the story of the Christ child, but I didn't know what. I had a vague understanding of what a savior was, but didn't know how an infant could be one.
Plus, there were the haloes: Baby Jesus and Mary had one, but Joseph didn't. There was a reason, I was sure, but didn't have a glimmer what it was.
The three wise men were just plain cool. They were noble, dignified, astute, and they were dressed to the Mid-eastern nines. Plus their names - Gaspar, Balthasar and Melchior? Exotic beyond my wildest imagining. I knew they found their way to Bethlehem by following the star, but no one ever said where they came from. Also, I knew what gold was, but couldn't even remember the names frankincense and myrrh.
Christmas in the great frozen north
Perhaps the greatest cognitive disconnect about Christmas was that while the tale itself took place in the desert in ancient times, all the other X-mas nitty-gritty was in the 20th century north, with snow, ice, evergreens, horse-drawn sleighs, Frosty the Snowman and so on.
It was a conflict of sorts, but I didn't agonize over it. Let's face it - if there's one thing My Home Town does better than just about anywhere else, it's winter. So early on I decided to bag the desert issue and just start enjoying Christmas in my own little non-Christian way, which, given the trappings and treats to be had, was pretty easy to do.
First, there were all the lights. I don't know if more people put more lights on their houses back then, but it sure seemed so. In fact, the Enterprise ran a contest for the house with the most beautiful Christmas lights, which led to pretty keen competition. While I liked the traditional lights, my bohemian nature favored those funky blue ones, the same color as the ones on airport runways. Perhaps I liked them so much because there were so few of them.
Next were the creches. I think all the churches had one, but the biggest one was the village one in Riverside Park. It was also the most beautiful, or at least I thought so, but that may be because it was the one I saw the most, having to go through the park on my way to and from town. The creche was big and so were the figures. They were also quite lovely, crafted out of plaster, I think.
Something else I loved was the Christmas tree in Berkeley Square. It was a magnificent tree - at least 40 feet high, loaded with long, thick branches, and lit from top to bottom. Just watching the village workers put it up was a show in itself. That tree was so big, the branches managed to scrape almost all the vehicles, no matter how carefully the drivers tried to get around it. In fact, in my freewheeling 20s, when my preferred mode of travel was by thumb, every time I got picked up by New York truckers and told them where I came from, inevitably they remembered it as the town with the huge Christmas tree in the middle of it. And they didn't remember it all that fondly either.
Probably my favorite Christmas item was Santa's Jukebox. In my youth it was in front of the Endicott-Johnson store (where the IB Hunt agency is now) and it always seemed to be playing - both traditional carols and popular Christmas songs. It's still around, though it's now in front of the Blue Line. And while I don't think it gets played very much anymore, I almost always play a couple of songs when I walk by it.
Just for the record, my favorites are Blue Christmas by Elvis, Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee and, of course, Christmas in My Home Town by Charlie Pride. Yeah, I know they're corny, but in case you haven't figured it out yet, I'm pretty corny too.
Of course, what I liked best about Christmas was its spirit. Even from my child's vantage point, I knew people tried to be nicer during Christmas, and for the most part they succeeded. Certainly we never achieved peace on earth, goodwill to men, but it never hurt to aspire to it - even if it was only for a small part of the year.
When I look back at it, my family didn't celebrate Christmas or have any of its accoutrements, but we didn't need to, since the town took care of that for us.
As for presents? We gave them to our Christian friends, but not each other, which was just fine with me.
We could exchange presents at Chanukah. Plus I never thought Christmas was about presents in first place.