Musings on Christmas Trees Amidst Pre-Christmas Preparations for Trip to NYC and Dogsitting a Sweet but High Maintenance French Briard

Best tree of life. 2011. Tree trimming with Emma and J, my tolerant, not observant Jewish boyfriend who let me have a tree at his house.

Happily, I persuaded my Jewish boyfriend to agree to a tree in his beautiful condo with ocean views. He did have a tree for five years or so when married to a Catholic, and while he’s not in the least observant–I don’t know the last time he went to High Holidays–his parents didn’t have a tree. His father comes from a family of rabbis and cantors and both his parents grew up kosher and Orthodox in Brooklyn and Queens.

My father grew up in the area of LA by Fairfax known as “the Borscht Belt.” His parents were entirely secular and he knew observant Jews, of course, but his parents felt kashrut was utter nonsense and he said plenty of secular Jews in LA, even in the 1920s and 1930s had a tree. Dad says, “You do it for your kids. It’s not about you.”

Quite frankly, Dad regards it as somewhat selfish for all but deeply religious Jews not to celebrate Christmas, where “celebration” consists in a tree, presents on December 25th, and a nice festive meal. Hanukah, sorry, isn’t much of a holiday from a celebratory standpoint. And it’s not religiously analogous to Christmas, one of the two most important holidays for Christians, along with Easter.

I went to plenty of Hanukah things when I was a kid and you just can’t compare Hanukah music to Christmas carols. My father’s first wife, with whom we celebrated Christmas every year during my childhood and early adolescence, was a pianist on the concert track until marrying and quitting. She was my piano teacher and I played all the carols in the Fireside book. We sang carols with my sister, a musician and my brother and his half-brother, all of whom who could sing very well. Of course anyone who gets a Hanukah bush should be shot–at least with a BB gun.

Every year I went to Abbie Schiller’s house for Sabrina’s and Bob’s famous (to friends and they had a lot of friends) open house. Bob was a writer for I Love Lucy and later All in the Family and Maude.  When you came in the front door of their large two-story Spanish-style home down the street from Reagan’s old place in Pacific Palisades, you saw a spiral staircase. Just off to the right was Bob’s study and I remember from an early age seeing his Emmys and noticing that other dads in my class also had those pretty gold statues in their home offices.

Sabrina was a phenomenal cook, still is I imagine, who founded the Coalition for Clean Air. They were real Tom Hayden/Jane Fonda types and Sabrina herself ran for State Senate once. I forget if she won or not but if she did it was one term at most. Sometime late in elementary school, Sabrina entered the Southwestern Law School’s “SCALE” program for a then very controversial two-year law degree, and years later, became a home builder/carpenter. Last I saw Bob for lunch was in graduate school and she had built a house in Iowa! I looked her up and she still practices as she is at least 5 years younger than my mother. She had been an actress, not tremendously successful when she met Bob, but did not pursue an acting career after having two daughters.

Sabrina made divine challah and heavenly brisket but her best-known dish was unquestionably her chili. They did Shabbat every Friday, celebrated Purim and Succout as well as Passover and the High Holidays. Abbie was not only a classmate but carpool mate for seven years, so we were quite close, though my best friend was Shana Goldberg-Meehan (Mad About You, Friends and then her own sitcom on CBS a year or two which I never saw and do not know if made it past the first season).

Abbie was best friends with Chrissy Levinson, now Chris, also a very successful writer for TV (Charmed and later either producer or writer on one of the Law and Order franchises). It’s not weird, really, that these children immersed in Hollywood went on to pursue careers after college in their parents’ line of work, but only when I got to college did I really understand what an unusual upbringing it was. (Even at Westlake School for Girls, there were a lot of industry kids, but it was a bigger school–120 girls per class–so the industry presence was less concentrated, diluted by the large numbers of lawyers and doctors.)

Every year Abbie and her little sister Sarah made the invitations for the open house, which they sent out with a family picture of Bob, Sabrina, Abbie, Sarah, Shirley (Sabrina’s sister who lived with them) and “Poppa,” Bob’s very old father who also lived with them. Sabrina often had boat people in the house, from Vietnam, so there were often one or two boat people in the picture as well. Just saying Poppa’s name brings tears to my eyes, though I haven’t thought about Poppa for years. Ironically, for an uber-liberal Jewish family, the Schillers were quite traditional and much more like the “multigenerational” family you see conservatives touting nowadays.

Bob is a good 8 years older than my father, so probably about Michael Kidd’s age (he died in 2007) . Abbie is on Facebook and I did write to her once but she didn’t write back, which I can understand as she has two small children now and works in some sort of arts education in LA. And she went to Crossroads not Westlake and we had no contact after 6th grade. While estranged from my parents, I ran into Bob at the gym on the treadmill next to me at the Water Garden and we met for lunch on occasion. I slept at their house once or twice during graduate school after Shawn returned from Oxford and my crash pad in Brentwood Park was no longer available.

Shawn Landres began a masters and doctoral program in religious studies at UCSB and gave me my apartment of ten years frequently referred to on Victorian Chick as “Death Gardens,” when he left for a second doctorate in cultural anthropology at Oxford. He is a CEO of some Jewish philanthropic organization in LA and I connected with him briefly on FB but we have nothing in common and he has 3K friends so it’s not something I pursued. Shawn was in our class at St. Augustine, and with Abbie, from the most observant Jewish family in our class. His mother’s side of the family had lost relatives in the Holocaust and I went to Passover seders at their house in elementary school at well, about which I remember nothing except “the Four Questions.” And that bitter thing you eat on Passover. That was the first and last time I ate that heinous Jewish food, gefiltefish.

I remember that weekend in 1998 quite vividly as I was working on the annotated bibliography for my seminar presentation for Elizabeth Cook’s graduate course on 18th-Century Women Writers. I was working on Aphra Behn, author of Oroonoko and I had hauled ten library books to work on amidst yoga at Yogaworks on Montana (I hated the SB Yoga Center with a passion) and workouts at the Water Garden in the Yahoo Center in Santa Monica. I have meant to look up Bob and Sabrina a few times but never done so and really will put that on my list in the New Year.

I remember Abbie had gone to Wheaton in MA and then gone to work for Martha Stewart for a time and I did speak with her on the phone a minute or two that weekend I spent with Bob and Sabrina who always, like the rest of the parents in that class, had a sort of soft spot in their hearts for me. Richard Levinson, who sadly died when Chrissy and I were in 9th grade (she went to Brentwood not Westlake or Crossroads) was wonderful, as was his wife Roseanna, and they were the only parents my parents ever invited down to the boat. Dad had zero interest in socializing with Hollywood people and grudgingly tolerated my industry childhood because St. Augustine was the best school in the world for a creative and verbal child. Over a third of us went to Ivies, the rest to UCs or other small liberal arts colleges.

Sabrina had been raised Catholic, I think, but definitely Christian. She converted to Judaism for Bob and both girls went to Hebrew school at the reconstructionist temple in the Palisades, Kehillah Israel. But when Sabrina, a highly capable woman, decides to do something she doesn’t do it by half-measures. So she became president of the temple!

I drive past Kehillath Israel when I take Malibu Canyon to come home to SB during rush hour to avoid the hellish 405 and even 101 through the Valley before Woodland Hills. I don’t know construction costs but they had to have dumped 15 million into the renovation and when I took Dad this week to his flu shot in Malibu and pointed it out, he said, “Pretty ugly , isn’t it?” That’s mild for Dad. I was expecting, “Jesus. That’s the ugliest fucking building in the Palisades and the fourth ugliest building in WLA (there are three houses at which he blows raspberries–in his mellower, gentler incarnation; in the old days it would have been the finger)!” It’s obviously well-constructed but it is just so hideously modern and over-sized for the Palisades.

So in spite of being secular (like my parents) and thinking everyone was Jewish until first grade or so, I regard Christmas as a simply magical event. I don’t believe in any kind of God, much less Christ. But it’s not just about that. Christmas is a cultural event, an American tradition, where families (at least ideally), can reflect together on the year and remember the love which binds them together. Of course, just as often, Christmas is like Thanksgiving, which Johnny Carson famously said is a time people flew all over the country to be with people they only see once a year and then realize once a year is too much!

Still, there really is such a thing as the “Christmas spirit” and anyone who has been to Manhattan in December understands this regardless of religion. I’m the last person to endorse what I regard as the nauseating social conservative agenda, but we are a Christian nation (80% seems to be the statistic you see on Facebook and in the social readers of various publications which circulate widely).

Of course our nation was founded by people for whom religion was absolutely fundamental to everyday life (though there has been much discussion since the rise of the Tea Party just what our Founding Fathers believed and there is a good book from 2006 on the subject published by Oxford which I meant to buy but never did).   Our early American poetry–quite good if you haven’t read it as an adult–is highly religious, and Anne Bradstreet’s poetry, while steeped in the language of salvation, is geniunely good verse. Jeffrey Hammond is one of the best modern critics of Bradstreet and I wrote a seminar paper on her for Giles Gunn, a very famous Americanist (of whom I’m not very fond) at UCSB. Hammond’s book, if you are interested, is Sinful Self, Saintly Self (it’s on Amazon and there is a subtitle I do not at the moment recall).

Given our nation’s Christian roots, the idea that there is some “Hanukah” spirit strikes me as ludicrous. I don’t know that anyone claims such nonsense but the end of the year in America is about Christmas and I find “holiday trees” just as bad as “Hanukah bushes.” I also like Nativity scenes and I have never believed in Christ and have never given Christianity a second thought except as an object of historical and literary investigation. Milton’s “Ode on the Nativity of Christ” is a canonical poem no English major or scholar can’t know and love.

So the idea that someone has a problem either with a bunch of Nativity scenes (as they have in SM) or a Christmas tree in front of a government building strains credulity. But it’s true. I don’t even have a problem with a local government kicking in a few bucks for a tree or a bunch of wood and some little statues to go inside of them. Only, as J pointed out, if a Jew for instance, wanted to put up a star of David for Hanukah and a government employee objected, would there be an issue.

But every year in Santa Monica, on Ocean Avenue, they put up those Nativity scenes along the park where people jog and play chess and relax, and I couldn’t wait till they went up in the beginning of December. Now people are bitching and moaning, saying that it is inappropriate for some insane reason. Why is it inappropriate for a nation 80% of whose inhabitants claim to be Christian, to put up a nice Nativity scene along the ocean, when this is a Santa Monica tradition as long as I’ve been alive? It’s a narrative and the narrative is absolutely fundamental to our national literature, whether you believe it’s just a nice story or a divinely significant one. I have zero patience for this kind of PC bullshit and I hate it when it comes from the left because it makes Democrats look bad. We have enough Democrats to do that, thank you very much; we don’t need more liberal PC idiots making every Democrat look uptight or humorless.

This is my second Christmas on Facebook and I have a new friend I simply adore– an editor at a conservative publication–who hilariously noted that it isn’t Christmas to him until he hears Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad” and Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” in a department store. You never know on Facebook what will instigate a long comment thread but this seemed to inspire people and then open onto a deeper discussion of music.

My ever-exasperating but well-meaning and lovable friend had to haul out that empty Duke Ellington truism that there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. I was tickled when my literary editor friend on FB said that Oscar Wilde had made a similar remark about good and bad writing because anytime someone calls my friendly antagonist on his bullshit, I’m happy. No one is quarreling with the Duke’s genius, merely pointing out that the person needs to give the “Duke doctrine” a rest already in these pontifications about music which the doctrine is intended somehow to legitimate. Besides, it’s hardly an earthshattering or staggering insight.

But notwithstanding the occasional musical schlock one must endure in department stores, the Christmas season is magical. What child passes a tree all lit up and isn’t filled with a sense of wonder? What child (or adult for that matter) doesn’t feel an added sense of delight at opening a present in red, green, gold, or white wrapping paper with scenes of reindeer, Santa, trees and snow? My mom continued to do a stocking for me a decade after I quit believing in Santa Claus and if I still woke up at their house, I have no doubt she still would, just as she does for her step-grandchildren when she arrives at their mother’s house for brunch.

Getting a tree was a big thing when I was little. My mother worked feverishly though she made a point of getting home by 7PM on weeknights for dinner, even if she ended up bringing work home. But on Saturdays, we always had a bit of Mommy/daughter time on the boat, though Dad being very high maintenance and demanding of her attention, wasn’t thrilled when we went to see movies (though he didn’t want to come).

I remember seeing Out of Africa–to this day, I can remember so much about the theater, the tacos by the UA in the Marina Del Rey–and still being all puffy from crying when we reached the boat after the long movie. The killing scene is of course the funeral, when Streep reveals she has finally come to understand Redford’s essence and the lessons he tried to teach her about ownership and possession for so much of the film: “He was not ours, he was not mine.”

Mind you, I was still in elementary school and I have never traced my Dan Savage view of relationships back to that movie, but thinking about it now, it is entirely possible that a movie I remembered and saw many times in my life (even buying the soundtrack freshman year in New Haven) might have shaped my tendency to agree that monogamy is a stringent, unrealistic and in the end, not always desirable standard. Savage whipped up quite a shitstorm on FB with his article in the New York Times, “The Virtues of Infidelity,” with which I agreed almost entirely.

I just called Mom and told her, “We’re going to get a Crimmy tree” (I could not say Christmas properly, or “ice cream store” which became “I cree toe” and I make Dad laugh in Swarthmore in the Palisades when we go to Lenny’s Deli and ask him if he wants to go to the “I cree toe”). “It’s a little early isn’t it?” she asked. I’m leaving on Sunday midday for LA and fly to NYC on Monday (hair color tomorrow plus high end curling iron from Cosmoprof as I never in my entire life felt more glamorous than I did last month at my cousin’s wedding when I had it curled in the Belle Square Mall), so she thought it made more sense to wait till I returned. She thinks J is a great sport not only to indulge me in a tree (I’m paying for everything of course), but to sit with my tree while I play in NYC for two weeks, seeing old friends and meeting two people from FB I absolutely adore.

I scored at the Cottage last week in LA and spent more than I ever do at one time–two dresses for, gasp, 400–but these were special and they fit like dreams. The first is a vintage Shiva Rose (ex-wife of Dylan McDermott and a Palisades girl after coming to America from pre-revolutionary Iran at 10) and the second a used Nicole Miller which I swear to God takes 10 pounds off and restores my ass to the pre-accident size.

Happily, I found a sweater from Discovery, hand-knit, old and second-hand from the American Cancer Society store by which my mother swears. I also had an old white cotton Banana Republic at the cleaners I’d forgotten about. The wine didn’t come entirely but it’s fine and Aunt Suzy can easily do a bit of bleach on it. Ecocleaners doesn’t use bleach of course. And I forgot I DO have navy shoes. They are in NYC from the last trip and they aren’t comfortable but they are very pretty shoes from Macy’s, Unisa I think, patent leather sling backs about 3.5 inches which will be perfect with the navy floral 1940s style Shiva Rose which makes me feel like something right out of one of my favorite movies of all time, Bugsy. The Nicole Miller is black and both will be going on Chictopia when I get myself organized.

Happy Weekend!

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