Two Festivals of Light
Buscaglia, Leo, The Saturday Evening Post
From the book Seven Stories of Christmas Love by Leo Buscaglia, (C) 1987 by Leo F. Buscaglia, Inc. Published by Stack, Inc. Distributed by William Morrow and Company, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
Love never dies as long as there is someone who remembers.
Christmas never fails to evoke memories. Most of us can recall Christmases of great joy and of disappointment, of warm camaraderie and frightening loneliness, of exciting hellos and painful good-byes.
It's strange how memory works-why we remember what we remember and forget what we forget. How is it that I can remember so vividly the details of a special Christmas more than 50 years ago, and forget important events of just a few days past?
I could not have been more than eight or nine years old the Christmas when our new neighbors moved in. It was an exceptionally cold and rainy Los Angeles December. I remember it well because of the embarrassment I felt over having to wear my sister's winter coat, which she had outgrown. In our home, clothes were not thrown out, they were handed down, and it was my turn to wear the coat-no matter the girlish fur piping on the collar and sleeves, and buttons on the wrong side.
We lived in a small house heated by a single woodburning stove that served to separate the kitchen and the dining room. I remember how we huddled that December to dress by its heat. The house was frame, similar to many others still to be found in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles. They were proudly referred to at the time as craftsman houses.
The families who lived on our street were mostly first-generation immigrants: Jews from Eastern Europe, Italians from southern Italy, Germans, and Mexicans. Few of them spoke English well, most had large families, all of them were poor.
Our new neighbors moved in early in December -a rabbi and his family: a boy, Elijah, who was my age; and a girl, Sarah, a few years older. When I saw them for the first time I pretended to be playing but watched as their large old pieces of furniture were unloaded from the moving van and disappeared into the darkness behind their front door. I wondered what they'd be like, if they'd speak English, if they'd be friendly. As is usually the case under such circumstances, it was Elijah and I who were the first to talk. It always seems easier for children, for some reason. We were soon walking to school each day, fast becoming close friends. He was one of the few children who didn't laugh at my coat.
We were standing in the schoolyard waiting for the bell to ring one morning when the subject of the approaching holiday came up.
"What are you going to get for Christmas?" I asked Elijah.
"I don't believe in Christmas," he said simply.
I was stunned. "Everybody believes in Christmas," I insisted.
"I'm Jewish. We don't," he answered matter-of-factly.
"Well, what do you believe in if you don't believe in Christmas?" I persisted.
"Lots of things. But not Christmas," he responded.
When something of any importance happened during the day in our lives, it was always shared with the family at our dinner table that evening . It was here that anxieties were lessened, mysteries solved, solutions arrived at. I couldn't wait to tell the startling news. Our new neighbors didn't believe in Christmas!
Mama and Papa were as mystified as I was at the news. They were not moved by my elder brother's explanation that Christmas is a religious holiday, that there are all kinds of beliefs in the world, that the Cohens had as much right not to believe in Christmas as we did to believe in it. After all, he reasoned further, wasn't that part of why so many people left their homelands to emigrate to the United States?
Mama in her innocent wisdom rationalized, "Maybe they don't know about it. They come from far away, like we do, and maybe no one told them yet. …