My last summer in Montevideo, Uruguay,was spent in my grandparents’ home. My father was already in America making arrangements for our family to join him. It was that summer that I got to know my grandfather well, and through a simple question that he didn’t answer, I learned a lot about celebrations, traditions, and about myself.
My grandfather had always been a mystery to me, and he spoke little about his past in the “Old Country.” Mostly, I relied on a single photograph, one that I still have at home. My grandfather is standing beside his milk wagon, and my father is the little boy mounted on the harnessed horse. Even though that picture was taken in Montevideo, years after he left Lithuania, I figured that there was no need to ask him about his earlier life. Surely he was a milkman in Europe as well, another Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
I often looked at that picture and from that single pose imagined his whole earlier life. I could visualize the small village with its dirt streets; my grandfather slowly walking by the butcher and the baker with his milk wagon, sharing his troubles with this four-legged companion that had somehow followed him across the ocean. The only time I ever asked him a question about his youth is one that I still remember with a sense of regret.
The highlight of any summer in Uruguay is “El Dia de los Reyes,” The Day of the Kings, here more commonly known as The Day of the Epiphany, that falls on Jan. 6. Before the Americanization of the whole world, Santa Claus did not come to visit most Uruguayan children. The concept of a man in winter clothing with reindeer pulling a sled in the middle of summer was even more unbelievable and non-sensical than having those reindeer fly. Payday for good boys and girls came on Jan. 6, not Dec. 25. It is on this day that the Three Kings return to deliver toys to those children who have been nice and who had the forethought to put water and goodies for those overworked camels who did not fly but apparently swam very well.
Although I was raised in a relatively observant Jewish household, our parents did not have the heart to deny us the tradition of El Dia de los Reyes, much as many Jewish families here are visited by Santa. Hanukah was hardly celebrated, so Jewish boys in Uruguay either got a visit from the Three Kings, or they had to wait for their birthday, and what little boy wants to wait that long?
I was never stupid enough to question my parents about our participation in El Dia de los Reyes, even after I was old enough to suspect some kind of contradiction. I certainly knew that the original gifts where for the Christ Baby, but if the Three Kings had been dropping presents in a Jewish kid’s living room for years by mistake, I wasn’t about to correct them. Thus, January in Uruguay is by far the best time of the year. Northerners cannot appreciate how the joy of a new soccer ball or bike was magnified one hundred-fold back then, how wonderful it is to be able to run out in the streets early the same morning with our toy bonanza, a whole month of freedom and beautiful weather ahead.
On that January that we spent with my grandparents, the Three Kings miraculously found our new address and left some gifts for us. We played with those new toys all day, and in the afternoon, exhausted and giddy, I met my grandfather walking home from work, minus a horse, since he sold blankets door-to-door by then. I told him all about my new toys, and in my enthusiasm, asked him what the Three Kings used to leave for him when he was a little boy in Europe.
Maybe even before my words had floated through that beautiful January day, I tried to take them back. Christmas, the Nativity scene, the Three Kings, cookies left for camels. These were as foreign to this man who had lived in a small Jewish hamlet and whose thick Yiddish accent still echoes in my ears, as some Shaman’s dance in the darkest of Africa. If it meant anything to him at all, it was more likely the slow dissolution of religious observance and tradition that was making us drift apart, not bringing us together. I cannot remember what his answer was, or whether he answered it at all. I was so struck by a sense of embarrassment and remorse as we walked home together. I realized at that moment that El Dia de los Reyes may be a beautiful tradition full of joy and hope, celebrating, for those who so believe, the birth of their Savior. But it was not my tradition, not my celebration, not my Savior.
Just a few moments earlier I had been able to pick and choose what I wanted to believe and celebrate, but suddenly I had become too old for that, and it seemed to me that I had received those toys by subterfuge, by impersonating someone else. It was in that warm January of 1970 when I realized that I had cheated the Three Kings, and I never asked them to return again.