In the midst of packing up the apartment where I’ve lived for the past seven years, I found them right where I knew they would be, in a box at the very back of the hall closet.
Sighing, I opened it. There they were, bells and angels, stars and glass balls, shimmering in every color of the rainbow, shining out of the depths of the cardboard darkness. My Christmas ornaments, every single one with its own story, its own memory. I picked one up—a goofy orange ceramic lobster my sister had brought from Maine—and gazed at it, remembering my final Christmas tree in 2001, the year before I converted.
“Throw them out,” said my friend Chrissy, as she folded up the clothes I would be donating to a local charity. “It’s not like you’re going to use them ever again.”
“No,” I replied, a note of stubbornness coming into my voice. “I want to keep them.”
“But why? You’re Jewish, you haven’t had a tree for two years.”
“I don’t know,” I said lamely. “Maybe I’ll decorate a sukkah (wooden hut) with them someday.”
“You’re going to decorate your sukkah with a lobster (non-kosher food)?” she asked, raising her eyebrows. I didn’t answer, but I smiled as I taped up the box and put it aside, to take with me to my new home.
Some time ago, for an article about how the December holidays impact interfaith families, I was asked by JTA reporter Joe Berkofsky how, as a new convert to Judaism, I would be spending the Christmas holidays with my Catholic family. I had felt honored to be interviewed and answered Joe’s questions almost breezily. I remember telling him how easy it had been to give up my Christmas tree, and predicted that it would be a wonderful, happy challenge to celebrate “my” holiday of Hanukkah in the midst of my family’s Christmas celebrations.
What I didn’t know last year was that my little travel menorah, brought over to my parents’ house for our traditional Christmas Eve family party, would look so small and forlorn in the midst of the lights and wreaths and holly. Even though Christmas Eve coincided with the sixth night of Hanukkah, and my family joined me in the candle blessings, the menorah seemed so out of place that not even those steadfast candle flames were of any comfort. Small and forlorn was exactly how I felt. It was then that I realized, in spite of my cheery holiday prediction, something was indeed wrong.
I also didn’t know that as part of my boyfriend’s holiday traditions, he would want to watch Midnight Mass on TV that night. As a young journalist, Claude had interviewed the late John Cardinal O’Connor for one of his stories, and later that year, the Cardinal had invited him to attend Christmas Eve Mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Ever since then, Claude, though deeply proud of and committed to Judaism, had a soft spot for the Midnight Mass, with all of its pageantry and loveliness. But for me, the Mass was another reminder of everything I was not anymore.
Sitting together in the darkness of the living room, listening to the Gospel and its message of “peace on earth, goodwill towards men,” I realized that I still knew all of those ancient prayers, still knew the words to the hymns and the carols. I felt a tightness in my throat and a strange stinging in my eyes. By 12:30, I was in the bedroom reading with the door closed, so that I wouldn’t hear the music.
I also didn’t know that by Christmas morning, it would all be too much for me to handle. Any pretense of breezy holiday celebrations had faded with the headache that greeted me as I woke up. All I could think about were the years of Christmas mornings that my sister had jumped on my bed to wake me up, and how together we had raced each other down the stairs to see what Santa had brought for us. My mom and dad would already be making cups of tea in the kitchen, emerging with resigned smiles as they encountered the detritus of torn wrapping paper and frantically untied bows.
Claude and I drove to my parents’ house, where my sister, her husband, and my two small nephews were waiting for us so that we could open presents. My headache was threatening to explode into a migraine, and I couldn’t keep the tremor out of my voice as I watched my nephews re-enact the chaos that my sister and I had crazily carried out for so many years. I opened my own gifts with a heavy heart, feeling as if I was doing something wrong. I’m not supposed to be doing this, I kept thinking. I’m Jewish now. This isn’t my holiday.
A few hours later, Claude and I packed up the car with our gifts and headed out for a movie and Chinese food–we had laughingly told one another that we would celebrate Christmas the traditional Jewish way. As I pulled the car door closed, the tears started. And they didn’t stop.
I cried through two movies. I cried all through dinner. When Claude tried to comfort me, I couldn’t respond. I cried out of some mixed-up sense that everything was wrong, that I was sitting over an untouched plate of chicken with snow peas when I should have been somewhere feasting on turkey with cranberries. I cried because, for the first time, I wondered if converting was perhaps the worst thing I ever could have done to my family, because Christmas with them didn’t belong to me anymore, and it never would again. I cried because I felt stupid, because I missed having a Christmas tree, and I was afraid I had reneged on my commitment to being Jewish because I had opened presents on Christmas Day.
And I cried because this was happening to me. I had fought so hard, waited so long, wanted so much to convert to Judaism, and the day of my conversion had been one of the happiest of my life. On that sunny August afternoon, I had chanted “Sh’ma Yisrael–Hear, O Israel!” with a heart full of pride, love, and humility. I loved Judaism with every breath of my being. But I suddenly felt betrayed by my decision. I belatedly realized that even as I had joyfully converted, I had never acknowledged the loss of my Christian heritage and identity. But here it was, coming back to visit me like a ghost of Christmas past. I had never envisioned myself becoming a casualty of the December dilemma. But it had happened just the same.
When I traveled to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion last summer to train as a mentor for those in the process of conversion, I heard a story about a woman who, having converted to Judaism, still couldn’t bring herself to give up her Christmas tree. She had tried to keep it a secret from her rabbi, but one day, in a fit of despair, confessed to him that she had put up a tree in her house. And he answered, very gently, “Well, maybe someday you might not need it anymore.”
That’s why I am taking my Christmas ornaments with me. It’s not so much that I ever expect to have a tree again. But I know that I still need them, even if they are hidden away in a cardboard box at the back of the closet. Like the ancient, hopeful liturgy of the Midnight Mass, like the sad, sweet songs that herald the holiday season, Christmas remains a part of me still, in a way that perhaps Hanukkah will not be until I have a family of my own.
My history, however, as I seek to balance the new wonders of Jewish life against the loss of a life once celebrated according to a different calendar, is one of the special and unique things that I bring to my Jewish journey. Because for me, the sense of wonder and holiness that I always felt at Christmas is at its heart our very same hope for peace—shalom, and our same desire for the healing and renewal of the world—tikkun olam.
For most of the world, Christmas is a day of birth. But I realize that for me, it is a yahrzeit, anniversary of a death. I hope that, as with any loss, the pain will become gentler with every passing year, and that I will remember what I learned from my old life with a genuine respect and fondness for what I once was. And I hope that as my ornaments gather dust in their cardboard box, my Hanukkah candles will chase away the darkness, illuminating that small, secret place of Christmas sadness in my heart.