I was at Trader Joe’s the other day and bought an advent calendar. For my dog. While this does make me question my sanity a little bit, I did it anyway, because I’m obsessed with this puppy, and I’m certain she’ll enjoy celebrating along with the kids. I know that my mother is going to be buying the calendars for my kids, and I also know she probably isn’t going out of her way to get one for my dog.
Yes, my Jewish kids open advent calendars. Every Thanksgiving, my mother gives them out to all her grandchildren, and it’s how we start every morning in December up to Christmas. We also put up a Christmas tree, a little bit later in the month than the rest of my family and with less fanfare. The tree will fight for space with the five or six menorahs we’ll put up, and all of the other holiday decorations that multiply somehow each year. We’ll have candy canes and potato latkes and gelt and hot cocoa.
In December, we do it all.
For years, we struggled with the hows and whys of celebration, balancing family traditions that were as important to both of us, and figuring out how to pass along this hodge-podge of traditions down to our kids. My husband grew up Jewish, and having the tree seemed like a sacrilege for him. I was a Jewish convert, with some of my most cherished childhood memories rooted in a completely secular celebration of Christmas.
There are perks to being an older, more experienced parent. One of them is that I’m much more confident about my choices and instead of theories and assumptions, I have kids who have grown up enough to be vocal to back me up. My kids are Jewish, they know it, they aren’t confused or insecure about their Judaism. They are proud of their heritage, on both sides.
I know that celebrating Christmas doesn’t make a child less likely to identify as Jewish. At least, it doesn’t for my kids. Their Jewish identity is so much a part of who they are and what they do for the rest of the year. Being Jewish is about Shabbat dinner every Friday, about USY, about spending time in synagogue and volunteering in our community. It’s about the Shehecheyanu over the first blossoms in the spring, and sung at every milestone we celebrate, big and small. It’s about board games in the sukkah, love letters to the trees on Tu Bishvat, and bon fires at Lag b’Omer. It’s also about honoring family heritage—both sides. Of recognizing the joy of sharing traditions with your grandparents. Of honoring your parents, in the best way that you can.
December is still my least favorite month, even now, almost 17 years after first celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas. Despite my resolve to do both, I feel isolated, outside of the Jewish community because I’m putting up a tree, outside of the society at large because I also resent the overly religious celebration of Christmas that’s ubiquitous in December. To a certain extent, my goal is to emerge unscathed, creating memories for my family that don’t involve parental bickering, guilt, and emotional angst. I’ve learned to be unapologetic about both my Judaism and my celebration of my own childhood traditions. They’re all a part of me, a part of my family, and while I’d never presume to suggest that the way we do it will work for every family, it’s the best approach for us.
I resolve every year to ignore all the naysayers on both sides and to embrace the mixed up cultural legacy that comes when you blend two different traditions. And mostly, to remember that, for me, Hanukkah and Christmas are both celebrating renewal and bringing joy and light into the darkness. Whether I’m doing it with twinkling lights on a Christmas tree, candles on a menorah or doling out chocolate or salmon treats each morning to kids and dogs, it’s all coming from the same place.