The Christmas Gang

 

There is an ancient British tradition called Ganging, from the Anglo-Saxon word gangen, meaning ‘to go.’ For fifteen hundred years, in what evolved from a solemn prayer ritual, village folk would gather to go ‘beat the boundary.’ They walked all around the parish to impress upon the youngsters’ memories the place they called home.

 

Their elders dunked them in dividing streams, knocked their heads against bordering trees, and made them climb over the roofs of houses built across the line so they would never forget.

Our family has a gentler holiday tradition, a celebration as much as a reminder. Our Christmas tree is nothing like those featured in House Beautiful. It’s topped with a Star of David, as we also celebrate Hanukkah.

The oldest ornament, a cellulose umbrella, decorated my great grandmother’s tree. We carefully hang Grandma Rhea’s handmade ornaments, dioramas inside blown eggs dressed in velvet. My children’s contributions are made of Popsicle sticks, glitter, and clothespins. The marshmallow snowman has grown sticky and yellow, with a tiny bite taken on the sly from its backside, but it makes me smile, and bookmarks an era.

I hang up the key to the house where I grew up, and recall my childhood, running barefoot through the back alleys of Detroit. The little Polish dancer wears the same costume my dashing husband wore performing with his dance group Polanie. The glass pen celebrates the year my first book was published. A tiny guitar marks the year my husband broke his leg and, instead of sulking on the couch, taught himself to play guitar. It hangs near Eli’s tiny oboe, and Bea’s violin and clarinet. A small glass bottle contains ash from Mt. St. Helens, collected from my pants cuff in 1980, when I was caught bird watching in Eastern Washington during the eruption.

Each Christmas, we carefully remove our ornaments from their tissue paper cocoons. As we hang them on the tree, we retell the stories. It’s like a crazy quilt, where scraps of colorful memories are pieced together and, voila! E pluribus unum! From the contributions of individuals we have compiled a portrait of one family, and from the many generations we have pieced together one history.

Ganging, or beating the boundary, is a tradition that teaches children their limits and sets rigid boundaries. Instead of knocking our children’s heads against a tree, let’s invite them to help create an empowering communal story among the branches of the family tree, free of boundaries and limitations, celebrating their lives, so full of possibility.

All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck

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Never Too Late!

At our house we celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah, and we also give a nod toward the Solstice.  This year we planned to observe the Solstice with a bonfire, and burn twenty years’ accumulation of tax receipts in our firepit, but it never stopped raining long enough to light a match.

Eli and I told Christmas and Hanukkah stories at the Renton History Museum.  One cannot properly tell stories without feeling the spirit within, so we were primed for both holidays.

Afterwards we went to Farmer Brown’s Tree Farm to cut our own Christmas tree.

Then we went home to light the menorah.

 We had company this year, cousins of my father, the son of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine.  June Aptekar Allen Smith and her husband Haskell traveled to Seattle from Texas to celebrate their first Hanukkah ever.

They played dreidel and sang the blessings for the first time, just as June’s ancestors had done for nearly two thousand years.

At 88 and 89, they are still fascinated by the world around them, by history, travel, current events, and the stories of strangers they meet in their every day life.  We reconnected with June and her daughter Leslie ten years ago, at an Aptekar family reunion in Tucson.  They introduced us to June’s niece Nancy and her husband Ian, who happened to live right here in Seattle, and who we now love like, well… family.

We compared notes and stories about our Aptekar roots, taking into account June and Haskell’s meticulous research, papers and letters from my mother’s attic, my Grandma Rose’s recently rediscovered autobiography among them.  Cousin Bryan drove up from Portland to represent the descendants of Dave Aptekar, yet another branch of the family tree.  We pieced together all our snatches and snippets and scraps of information into a more comprehensive family history, from before the pogrom of Odessa in 1905 to my great grandparents’ subsequent immigration through Ellis Island, and on to Detroit.

In 1905, the Aptekar family huddled in the cold and the dark, listening to the screams of horses and the crash of breaking glass, as Cossacks charged down the street, burning the businesses and homes of Odessa Jews, killing 800 Jewish men, women and children, and causing 2, 500 casualties.  Trapped inside without food or fuel for the fire, the Aptekar family huddled in their winter coats, and broke through ice in the water pail to drink.  With tears streaming down his cheeks, my great grandfather Jacob Aptekar chipped tiny pieces of sugar from the sugar cone to feed to his hungry children, promising them he would find food for them soon, while making a silent promise to himself to move his family far from that hateful place forever.  Jacob’s hair turned white overnight, and my Grandma Rose’s little sister Clara died in her arms.

Victims of 1905 pogrom in Odessa

Over the next two generations, time, geography, estrangement, and self-imposed exile tugged at the threads of the Aptekar family tapestry.  But more than a hundred years later, the descendants of Jacob’s children, Reuben, Rose, and David, gathered around one table for latkes, applesauce, and Hanukkah sushi.

Broken threads can be repaired and rewoven…


…and it is never too late for a happy ending.

All words c2012 Naomi Baltuck.