Christmas is almost upon us and as always during this time of the year I am consumed with the rich memories growing up in Ottawa, where Christmas meant mounds of snow and icy cold temperatures.
When I was a child growing up in Ottawa in the 1950s and 60s, snow, wind and cold seemed as inseparable from this time of the year as potato latkes and Chanukah. Being one of only a small number of Jewish families in the city, we inescapably got caught in a Christmas spirit that enveloped us all.
*Christmas Day, 1960. Author with his mother and brother in front of their Ottawa home.
While today arguments ensue about the proper “holiday greeting,” in Ottawa in the latter half of the 20th century, it seemed common place to wish everyone a “Merry Christmas and a Happy New year.” To be sure, the change has much to do with the different patterns of immigration then and now, but it also has to do with what I can only describe as the spirit of the season.
My memories of the time are rich and deep of those few days just before the Christmas holidays, when I walked beside my father who often took me to school on his way to open our small family grocery store. Despite the bitter cold, I felt warm bundled up in my wool overcoat, scarf and that ugly cap with sheep-skin flaps that covered my ears. I still recall fondly that scrunch of the snow under our heels as we walked up the Somerset Street hill toward my elementary school.
Osgoode Street Public School, established in 1898, covered kindergarten to grade 6. It was an interesting hodgepodge of children, many from immigrant families that had settled in the Sandy Hill area of Ottawa just after the war. They were mostly Eastern Europeans whose first languages ranged from Ukrainian to Italian with smatterings of German, Polish and — like mine — the odd Yiddish speaking family. My younger brother Stan and I and the Cohen twins were the only Jewish children at Osgoode Street Public school. Christmas pageants were a regular and highly anticipated holiday assembly. We all got to play roles, from shepherds wearing cotton beards to angels with paper wings. I still recall my parents’ sardonic smiles when I came home in early December 1960 to announce that I would be playing Joseph that year.
All the Jewish kids wanted so much simply to fit in. We felt so different, and Christmas, though not our holiday, was a time when the usual antisemitic taunts we had to endure daily gave way to a cheery “Merry Christmas.” I loved the Christmas carols, the words of which are ingrained to this day in my mind. I can still sing a mean “Joy to the world” as well as “Dreidle Dreidle, Dreidle.” Indeed, many years later as a social worker with the Childrens’ Aid Society, it was this Jewish guy that led the group of foster children in carol-singing during the regular Christmas parties.
But my most vivid memory of the time was the Jewish-owned Freiman’s department store on downtown Rideau Street. Many decades later it was bought by the Hudson’s Bay Company, but in 1960 it was Ottawa’s Christmas Winter wonderland. A miniature train began inside the Freiman’s show window, and we were all in awe as it chugged its way through Toyland towards, who else but Santa Clause himself. I recall my concern that time I departed the train and decided I too would sit on Santa’s lap. As I approached the white bearded man, my Jewish heart pumping a mile a minute, I wondered if an electrical bolt would be sent down from the heavens. Turns out Santa was none other than Moishe Gorinsky, a Jewish friend of my father’s moonlighting that year as a department store Claus. It was a sobering experience for a 9-year-old Jewish boy in 1960, to be sure.
Today the season is much different. Christmas is openly shared with the many other rich faith traditions that make up Canada in the 21st century. Kwanza, Diwali and my own Chanukah celebration have all been woven into this time of the year, making us all feel part of the season. And while I welcome and embrace the changes, once in a while, I cannot help but bring to mind a simpler time long ago when a young Jewish boy sat on the lap of a Jewish Santa and played Joseph in his school Christmas pageant.
A similar version of this article appeared in the Huffington Post December 2012