Trip Down Memory Lane: Christmas with David Randall

Christmas, for me, is the German Jewish holiday passed down from my father’s mother.

“My father’s father was a Baptist minister,” said my dad, “and my father’s family didn’t do Christmas trees or any of that. The Puritans’ America wasn’t gaudy that way. Trees, candy canes, and ornaments was stuff the Germans brought over. It was my mom, who was German Jewish, who insisted that the family have the Christmas tree, with ornaments, and everything decorated just so. Because if you’re German Jewish, you are German, and you love Christmas and you sing ‘O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, Wie treu sind deine Blätter!’ So that’s what my parents did and that’s what we do.

My mom was Jewish, but not German Jewish. She went along, but I don’t think she’d have cared so much about the tree. All her family came for Christmas, her parents and her uncles and her aunts, they were most of the guests in our apartment when I was young, and we all happily exchanged presents.

It was Edith Kristeller, German Jewish refugee from Hitler, who came to every Christmas with her husband Paul, and checked to make sure the Christmas tree was decorated front and back, ornaments properly distributed and not just glitzy in the front. So, I spent significant amounts of time making sure the ornaments were properly on the back too—which was loads of fun. And Edith peered behind and gave her nod of approval.

The first few Christmases with my dad’s parents and the Kristellers actually took place on Christmas Eve—that’s when Germans exchanged presents. Later, when my dad’s parents passed away, we invited the Kristellers for Christmas Day instead, with the rest of my family. But we still did the Christmas stockings on Christmas Eve.

Some of our glass ornaments were from the 1930s—a fewer maybe from the 1910s. Two Victorian Christmas stars, one red and one white, for alternate years; tall, narrow, elegant spires to cap the trees rather than these five-sided stars that are popular now. I have one of them now; my sister has the other. A glass ornament—there’s a good metaphor for civilization! Something to cherish and pass along, something very fragile, you’re careless for a moment and it breaks.

There was no love of Christmas like the love of the German Jews before 1933. And I got to see last bit of it, growing up so many decades later, in the land of their exile. One ornament that didn’t get smashed.

More to my Christmases than that, of course. I went to an Episcopal primary school, so there was a whole month of Christmas carols in chapel—the traditional ones with the proper words and tunes. No TV in the house, so I don’t really care about the Grinch or Rudolph, but I read the Peanuts comic strips and grew up with Charles Schultz’s interpretation of the Christmas spirit . Later, there Tom Lehrer and Weird Al and the Kinks and the Pogues, each with their own version of Christmas cheer.

But of all the modern Christmas songs, the one that stuck with me was the Royal Guardsman singing about Snoopy and the Red Baron meeting at Christmas.

The Baron had Snoopy dead in his sights
He reached for the trigger to pull it up tight
Why he didn’t shoot, well, we’ll never know
Or was it the bells from the village below

Christmas bells those Christmas bells
Ringing through the land
Bringing peace to all the world
And good will to man

That’s another fragment of old Germany in my Christmas memories, Manfred von Richthofen and World War I, by way of Charles Schultz and the Royal Guardsmen.

Judeo-Christian tradition is one of those silly political phrases, well-meaning mid-century blither to unite Americans in something fuzzier and baggier than the old Christendom. It’s sententious nonsense, any serious historian will tell you, a waystation to the even more amorphous Abrahamic religions, and all such ecumenical piffle. But it’s also what Christmas was for me, growing up. Some fragment of how the Moritzes and the Rosenbaums celebrated Christmas back in Kempen and Breslau, back when those were German towns, and how the Kristellers celebrated it in Berlin and Heidelberg, all those Jews who loved Christmas trees as they loved Goethe and Bach and every part of their beloved country. Before the demons came.

Christmas in New York City back in the 1970s and 1980s begins to seem as lost and distant a place as that vanished Germany. And there are demons on our streets again.

Ah, that’s a melancholy thought. Set it aside until the New Year. Go to your Christmas trees and make sure the back is decorated as well as the front. And sing the Christmas hymn of our beloved country, composed in its halcyon days:

Christmas bells those Christmas bells
Ringing through the land
Bringing peace to all the world
And good will to man

Amen, say we all.

Photo by Денис Кузнецов — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 388189323 — with edits by Jared Gould 


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