Growing up in Boston in the 1980s, the holiday season ushered in wool crewneck sweaters and baggy corduroys in shades inspired by autumn vegetables. Winters were rain-slicked and cold, and when it snowed, snow quickly gave way to slush. L.L. Bean duck boots were in flourishing abundance, worn by everyone, like they’d been air-dropped over Beacon Hill during some humanitarian footwear aid mission. On Newbury Street—an affluent but hip stretch of downtown with a Virgin Megastore at one end and the Ritz-Carlton at the other—a preppy procession of college students in navy peacoats and fleece pullovers hoisted backpacks over their shoulders and gripped shopping bags from Benetton and the Gap. In the window of Betsey Johnson—this was back when I wore black lace tights in sub-zero temperatures—there was a frosted white Christmas tree, mounds of faux snowflakes and mannequins with side ponytails and neon bows. But the Public Garden had the grandest display of holiday wattage, with garlands of twinkling lights strung up on stately elms and magical weeping willows. Green, blue, red, white—for two straight months the town turned into one giant electricity suck.
Because we were Jewish, we’d admire the festive Christmas blaze from afar, then rush home to light our Chanukah menorah. By no means the religious (or commercial) equivalent of Christmas, the few memorable decorations in our suburban split-level to emerge from the minor historical holiday included a ‘Happy Hanukkah’ sign made out of glittery silver cardboard, a big plastic dreidel with chocolate gelt wrapped in gold foil inside it and an unfortunate gummy menorah window gel. We didn’t have fancy lights, but we also didn’t have to worry as much whether or not our pajamas were flame retardant.
Our annual Saval Family Circle Chanukah parties were held at the Charles River Park Synagogue, on Martha Street right off Storrow Drive and across from the frosty Charles, with rowboats and canoes docked along its icy bank and runners blowing clouds of cold breath as they crossed the Harvard Bridge over to the Cambridge side. On a track overhead, the green line roared, headed outbound past the Museum of Science to the Lechmere stop.
The synagogue—my late great uncle, the Boston insurance magnate Maurice Saval, donated most of the building finds— had cool concrete floors and a dark spooky back area where the Orthodox women sat, and circular built-in floor lights like in a movie theater. In our not-yet-smoothed over Boston accents, my brothers and cousins and I used to run around and call out our names, testing the synagogue’s echo potential. The part of the Sanctuary where we held our party had brownish-red carpeting and there were long rectangular windows looking out onto Boston’s dusky West End. When snow fell, it inched its way down the glass as it melted, and when the sun shone, it sparkled.
Beside the synagogue stood a towering high-rise apartment complex. The Charles River Park Apartments were about as architecturally chic as an eyesore in Soviet Russia, but it was close to the Boston Garden where the Bruins and Celtics played and if you ever needed a doctor, Mass General was an easy walk. Outside is a famous sign that’s pretty much known by everybody from Boston: IF YOU LIVED HERE, YOU’D BE HOME NOW.
The drive home after the party was sleepy and slow, with a blast of cold air before the heat in our car kicked in. I’d be in the passenger side front seat—I got carsick, and it was the only thing keeping me from throwing up—resting my head against the window, watching the sign glide past. I’ve never once set foot in those apartment buildings, but even today, whenever I get homesick for Boston it always pops into my head: If you lived here, you’d be home now…
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne