by S. Nadja Zajdman
I love Christmas trees. I so love Christmas trees that every December I visit the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts just to look at their seasonal exhibition of trees from around the world.
My earliest Christmas memories include a tree. As a toddler, I didn’t know that the tree in our home had been placed there for Miss Jane. Miss Jane was our half French-Canadian, half-Irish nanny. She lived with us and took care of my little brother and me while our parents were at work. When Miss Jane left, so did the tree. I was confused. I asked my dad what had happened to our festive fir. He teased, “I’ll get you a Hannukah bush.” I remained confused. There’s no such thing as a Hannukah bush.
After Miss Jane’s departure, we shared a Christmas tree with a German couple across the hall. In the eyes of a child, there are few sights more splendid than a fully laden tannenbaum. My brother and I would drape the boughs with silver tinsel, and he had the honour of being lifted high in the air to place the shiny star on the top branch.
I was due to be born at Christmas. During a check-up on December 5, the obstetrician informed my mother I was so eager to meet her that it would take but a slight nudge to coax me into the world. My mother was equally keen to greet me, so I made my entrance during the wee hours of a Tuesday morning on St. Nicholas Day, in 1955. In childhood I imagined myself as Santa’s present to my parents—though often I suspected I’d been dropped down the wrong chimney. As I learnt the true meaning of Christmas, as well as the history of my people, I wondered at the irony of the Christian world making such a fuss over the birth of a Jew.
I don’t know what the weather was like when I was born. My mother didn’t remember, and my father was asleep. Invariably, however, the St. Nicholas Days of my childhood would herald winter’s first blizzard. I couldn’t have a party because no one would brave the storm. I would gaze forlornly out the window at the whited-out world. My dad would attempt to console me. “Sweetheart, you took the world by storm.” Then he would serenade me, not with “Happy Birthday,” but with a robust, Yiddish-inflected rendition of “Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!”
On my thirty-fourth St. Nicholas Day, my city was assaulted by the horror of a lone gunman murdering fourteen female university students for the “crime” of being women. This tragedy sent currents of rage through me, and shock waves across the country. It is now known as the Polytechnique Massacre. For the next decade, if I didn’t escape Montreal by nightfall on December 5, something violent would inevitably happen to me.
Getting older feels like climbing a hill. The more distance one gains, the clearer the view.
On my fiftieth St. Nicholas Day, which again fell on a Tuesday, both the weather and the atmosphere were finally, sunny and serene. I never did take the world by storm. I no longer felt the need.
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