I’m going to jump into the whole Christmas/Hanukkah discussion with both feet and with some potentially unpopular views. As someone raised in an entirely Christian household (Catholic mother, Baptist father), I’ve got a lot of history with and feelings about Christmas (mostly good). I associate the holiday above all with family get-togethers. It also makes me think of going home for the holidays, It’s a Wonderful Life, the smell of fresh pine, red and green decorations, frosted cookies, etc., etc. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was something to look forward to because the clergy burned incense, the choir was the biggest and best that night, and everyone was in a good mood.
When my Jewish husband and I got married, celebrating Christmas was never a problem. He himself grew up in an interfaith family (Episcopal mother, Jewish father—I know, I know, not considered “really” Jewish in some quarters, more on that in later blogs) that celebrated Christmas. Even my husband’s “very” German Jewish cousins, not interfaith, celebrated Christmas as their families had done ever since arriving in America in the 1800s. So for years we merrily put up a tree, hung stockings, festooned our apartment, then our house, with angels and elves and reindeer—the whole nine yards—without a care. We also joined a synagogue and raised our children as Jews, which included celebrating Hanukkah. We continue to light candles every night of Hanukkah, and the kids receive presents on the first and last nights.
The problems started when I decided to convert. Our kids were 13, 9, and 4 when I began attending classes. I loved conversion class, loved studying Torah, learning Jewish history and picking up some Hebrew. But then came the night when our coordinator brought up the topic of Christmas, delicately suggesting that we might not want to celebrate it any more and wondering how we would feel about that. One young woman looked distraught, then broke down crying and left. Really, she did. Giving up Christmas was too much for her to contemplate. To be honest, if I’d thought at that moment that I would have to give up Christmas once I converted, I probably would have started crying, too. The truth is, as soon as the coordinator asked us, I knew in a profound way that I couldn’t give it up. Besides, even if my husband and I decided to stop celebrating Christmas, our children would most likely tie us up in tinsel, stuff stockings in our mouths, and carry on without us.
So here we are as the holidays approach, now a completely Jewish family, yet neither entirely one thing or the other. We’re ok with it. But sometimes others aren’t. It’s their reactions that give me pause. Every season it happens: a newer Jewish friend or parent of my child’s friend or a neighbor who knows we are Jewish will give us that hard-edged look, or that telling “oooooh, you have a [i]tree[/i].” I flinch. I resist the urge to explain our background, that I just converted a few years ago, that really we are good Jews, that we go to family school and pray.
This is my current solution: I weasel. We put the tree in the back of the house so it’s not quite so apparent to passersby. We tend not to mention it at synagogue, which is interfaith anyway. We hang white lights, which could technically be regarded as a paean to the winter solstice!
Maybe it’s my inner rebel, maybe it’s my dear departed mother’s voice, maybe it’s just a surrender to overwhelming cultural influences, but I won’t stop celebrating the holiday with a tree and presents. And every Christmas morning, I’m perennially surprised and delighted to find there’s still a little magic left.