A Miami Jewish Christmas Story

Illustration by Evan Caughey.

A few years ago, Corona ran an ad of a palm tree decorated with Christmas lights. I knew that this was intended to be absurd and would provide a nice chuckle for northerners, but as I looked around my suburban South Florida neighborhood, I realized something. People actually decorate their palm trees for Christmas…and apparently the rest of the country finds that hilarious.

Then again, Christmas in the Miami suburb of Aventura, FL (my hometown) is very far removed from the yuletides and ho-ho-ho’s of any other American city. According to the city’s Wikipedia page, Aventura has a “substantial Jewish population”. There are at least five synagogues walking distance from my house, and zero churches. Our mall—the fifth biggest mall in the country— is much like our cathedral, except it’s filled with restaurants and 250 stores that thrive during this shopping-filled time of year. My house is so close to the mall that no matter where one tries to drive during the month of December, mall traffic is inevitable.

Despite these handicaps—the non-winter weather, the non-Christian affiliations, the rampant consumerism—pretty much everyone I know from home (most of them orthodox Jews, including my parents) have a bizarre fascination with all things Christmas.

In terms of religious Jews obsessed with Christmas, my mother is the Frankincense, Myrrh, and Gold standard. Come December, she insists on at least one bottle of egg nog in the fridge at all times. Christmas music stations are required listening in the car. (This past winter break, she allowed me to play Vampire Weekend in the car because she liked the song “Holiday” from the Tommy Hilfiger commercials.) She also makes it a point to watch the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas at least once during the season, as well as It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve. Additionally, we make the pilgrimage every year to a block in North Miami that famously has every house dripping Christmas decorations. The large trees overlap, creating a majestic, illuminated tunnel as one drives down the street at 3 miles per hour. (I tried to find some sort of listing online for the street, but came up empty. This seems to be one of those well-kept local secrets, and as far as I’m concerned, it might as well be Narnia.)

Of course, after coming up to Boston (where winter is cold) I’ve realized just how non-Wintery my upbringing has been. The first time temps dipped into the 60’s freshman year, a chill came up spine and I got so excited for Christmas that I bought a hot chocolate at Starbucks and listened to “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon. It was mid-September.

Then there are Clementines. No other smell makes me immediately think “CHRISTMAS!” like those tiny orange fruits. They peak in December, and I eat at least three a day during that time. There’s something about piercing its bright skin, and the little burst of acidic droplets that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. (In fact, I’m eating a clementine right now. I don’t know if it’s just Boston or the retailers here, but these clementines are just…unsatisfying.) Apparently, no one else associates clementines with the Season. (People keep saying that gin smells like pine trees, but I just don’t smell it.) It’s fine, anyway. More clementines for me.

My family has our own major Christmas tradition: The counting of the decorations. As I said before, Aventura is dominantly Jewish, and every week as my family walks home from Friday night dinner at my Grandma’s, we count every house with visible Christmas decorations. Now, Aventura is a city of mostly high-rise condominiums, so we pass about 500 units. In all the years that we’ve kept this tradition, the record for the most decorated houses we have ever counted is…50. 10%. That’s one in 10 homes that wish to spread holiday cheer, and even that number is surprisingly high.

This fascination with Christmas is not to be ironic. We haven’t had the chance to imbue Christmas with the stigma of seeing the Christian families flaunting their presents, love for peace on Earth, and good cheer towards men. That’s why we love it so much; it’s completely fabricated cheer. All anyone from this community knows about Christmas comes from TV specials, movies, and store displays. We have never been jealous that our families don’t get to celebrate the holiday, and instead we want to construct our own religion-less festivities.

Last week, my dad came to visit me here at BU, and as we walked past the rows of lit trees on the Comm. Ave Mall, he said to me, “Boston looks very nice this time of year. Anything winter-y in Miami just looks phony.” That is exactly the appeal that Christmas has in our little sub-tropical bubble. All winter in Miami is pretty phony. Hell, everything in Miami is pretty phony! We don’t know anything about Winter, and we don’t know anything about Christianity, which is why our images of what Christmas should be will never be realistic, and we will never be disappointed. There’s no other place that could nurture such a group of Jews who look forward to partaking in the joy of looking at other people’s Christmas decorations for one month out of the year.

About Joel Kahn

Joel is currently a film major at BU. He hails from South Florida, and started at The Quad writing about food. He is now the publisher of The Quad.

View all posts by Joel Kahn →

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