Reflecting on blended family traditions and creating new ones
Although my mother had dated only one Jewish man, she had an oft-repeated hypothesis that they made the best husbands. I didn’t have an opportunity to prove her theory correct until my third, and present, husband, Jack. She loved him immediately and thought he was ideal for me: calm when I was excitable, intellectually compatible, thoughtful, and kind.
But religion could have been a stumbling block: I am a Christian, he is Jewish, and neither of us is “convertible.” My faith is more than Christmas, his is more than Hanukkah. And December can be slightly complicated as we try to get our celebrations right. Years ago, before his children were grown, I decorated the house, cooked a Christmas Eve roast, and bought presents for the extended family. Jack didn’t mind the tree and wreaths—he was used to them, as his first wife was Christian. And his kids loved “Hanumas,” when they got the best of two worlds, and presents for both.
By the time we moved to Charleston 14 years ago, the children were grown and gone, and my zeal for all of the decorating and hoopla had waned. But Christmas Eve was still my favorite holiday, a time for self-reflection, joyousness, hymns in church, and hearing from family. And of course, I loved baking for it: Bourbon balls and caramel cakes, a chocolate roulade, and pecan tassies. In contrast, Christmas Day has always loomed on me like a giant black cloud.
This started during my childhood, when a somberness pervaded our home all season and culminated on December 25. My mother’s father died just before Christmas when she was five, and she really never got over it. Additionally, I was born on December 23, and no one wanted to celebrate a child’s birthday that close to the holiday, not to mention having to buy two presents rather than one. (I hasten to add that my husband gives me two big presents every year, one for my birthday and one for Hanumas, as my mother surmised he would.)
With the season quieter in this chapter of our lives, I decided anything was better than my staying home and brooding on Christmas Day. Jack certainly did not want to watch my favorite holiday movies and cry. What about the Jewish tradition of going out for Chinese food and a movie? I suggested.
My scholar husband explained to me that the custom was born in New York after it surpassed Charleston in having the largest Jewish population in the U.S. in 1820. By the turn of the century, the number of Chinese in New York had swelled, as had the number of Jews. This happy coincidence suited both: The Chinese restaurants were open on Sundays and Christian holidays, occasions when many Jewish families wanted to eat out. Now, although the need is past, Christmas is Chinese restaurants’ biggest day in urban areas from Los Angeles to New York.
Jack wasn’t personally familiar with the tradition. During his childhood in North, South Carolina (90 miles southeast of Due West), his family didn’t go out for Chinese food. There wasn’t any near North—or Due West, for that matter. But he was game for getting out of the house and being with others, and if Chinese food was part of the deal, it was fine with him.
That year, our oldest granddaughter was visiting from New York. We found a Chinese restaurant in Mount Pleasant that was open, and with hopes high and expecting a crowded, happy place, we entered. A pitiful Christmas tree greeted us near the door. A few couples, none Chinese, were scattered around, all waiting for the one waitress to serve them. The wonton soup was lukewarm, and the rest of the meal was so forgettable I can’t tell you what we ordered. The service was so slow that the last movie playing at the Terrace Theater had already started by the time we arrived.
Deflated, I almost gave up on trying new traditions. Would we have to visit our granddaughter in New York to go out for a good Chinese meal? We could withstand the long lines at one of my friend Ed Schoenfeld’s restaurants, RedFarm or Decoy. After all, in New York you don’t have to worry about being late to get in a movie—they go on all night.
It didn’t take us long to decide we’d rather stay in Charleston. A recent poll of friends indicated Red Orchids China Bistro in West Ashley as the favored spot, and I hear they have a great tangerine chicken. But this time, we’ll make an early reservation. I don’t want to miss another movie at the Terrace.