The first and only time that Alex Edelman’s family celebrated Christmas, their tree was topped not by a star, but a teddy bear wearing a yarmulke.
Mr. Edelman, who was 7 or 8 at the time — he doesn’t remember the exact year — was also wearing a yarmulke. All of his male family members were. Mr. Edelman, 33, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home in Brookline, Mass., and he says his family’s one-night fling with Christmas, which he chronicled with withering precision in his recent Off Broadway comedy show “Just For Us,” was a thoroughly Jewish endeavor.
The story has become an integral part of Mr. Edelman’s comedy routine: A non-Jewish friend of Mr. Edelman’s mother had a tragic year, and no one to celebrate Christmas with. So Mr. Edelman’s mother decided that, religion notwithstanding, she would do a mitzvah — the Jewish concept of a good deed — and invite her to celebrate with them. In order to make that happen, of course, she’d need stockings, cookies for Santa, and that ever-important tree.
“So we had Christmas,” Mr. Edelman says in his act. “We did a pretty good job, for Jews. We went whole-hog, except no hog. Kosher Christmas.”
By decking their halls, Mr. Edelman said, they were performing an essential Jewish act: welcoming the stranger into their home, with love and open hearts.
On Christmas morning, Mr. Edelman and his younger brother opened presents with their parents and Kate, their non-Jewish friend, who had spent the night and gone to bed delighted by the celebration. The brothers then headed off to school, as the Jewish day school that they attended was not closed on Christmas Day. Later that evening, their father would get a phone call from the school principal, who was deeply concerned. The Edelman brothers, it seemed, had been telling other students that Santa Claus had visited their home. Why would the Edelmans allow Christmas into their life? Mr. Edelman’s father was quick to answer: Clearly, he told the school principal, you don’t understand the true meaning of Christmas.
“It was a moment of great parenting. Not to give too much credit to my parents, but all credit to my parents,” Mr. Edelman said in an interview. “The only thing that is universally Jewish is intentionality. You cannot have Judaism without intention. And what’s so Jewish about this event is there was so much empathy, but also much intentionality, when my parents decided to do this.”
These days, the story remains Mr. Edelman’s favorite comedic bit in his show, “because afterward people tell me their own stories of human kindness,” he said. “It highlights what I love about my Jewish values, with empathy as the true north. It’s a good demonstration of how Jewish values can be applicable, even when you’re celebrating Christmas.”