I love this time of year. I love the smell of the pine needles from the tree sellers as we walk down NYC streets. I love when homes in our suburban neighborhood become lit with glistening Christmas trees and twinkling outdoor lights trim the edges of the roofs. Big blow-up snowmen stand in the large front yards and colorful wreaths don the front doors. Holiday music is played round the clock on the radio, in stores and at cocktail gathering at our friends’ homes. Christmas sweaters, red velvet dresses and candy cane socks are pulled from closets and worn to school. Kids talk about letters to Santa they are writing, cookies they are baking to leave beside the fire place where he will fall and stockings they are hanging for him to stuff. It’s exciting. It feels special.
I love this time of year but this is also a difficult time of year for me. It’s the time when Hannah begins her questions surrounding why she’s “different”. Why we don’t have a tree. Why our house is darker than our neighbor’s. Why Santa doesn’t visit us. Why we don’t celebrate Christmas. Of course I’ve explained that we’re Jewish and Jewish people celebrate different holidays. One isn’t better than the other, just different, I’ve told her.
But it brings me back. Back to when I was little and the only other Jewish person I really knew at school was my brother. And I wanted a Christmas tree and lights in each window and a wreath on our door. I wanted a family day where we sat around and pulled out old ornaments and placed them excitedly on the tree. I wanted to join the conversation with my friends about what Santa had left me under the tree. But I couldn’t. Because I WAS different. It was nice that I was invited by all my friends to help decorate THEIR trees (everyone needs a token Jewish person in their life to help with these projects!) but really, I wanted my own. I didn’t want people feeling sorry for me that I didn’t celebrate what they did. My dad had laid down the “law” that we could not have any decorations resembling a Christmas decoration in our house. No candles in the windows, no “Chanukah Bush”, no mistletoe or holly on the door. I didn’t get it. I just wanted our house to look pretty. I wanted to participate in the beauty of this holiday. But he just kept saying, “We are Jewish and all of that, is for Christmas.”
Now it’s MY family. MY house. I can make the rules as I see fit as far as how we participate in the holiday season. And I’m conflicted. Where should I draw the line so that we aren’t the “dark house” on the block but so that we uphold Jewish traditions? What symbols during the Christmas holiday are religious and which are just traditional for the “holidays”? I think I’ve decided that candles in each window are beautiful during the winter season, when there is snow on the ground and a fire in the fireplace, regardless of whether it’s Christmas or not. I enjoy Christmas music and I will play it as we sit in the living room in front of the fire reading and playing family games. Hannah and Luke can have their pictures taken with Santa at the mall because it’s cute and they can believe he “exists” but he won’t come to our house. But, I will not have a tree, a wreath, or mistletoe in our entryway. The kids will not have stockings hung by the fireplace and I will not wish them a Merry Christmas on December 25 because, well, we don’t celebrate it.
I have friends, even relatives, who are Jewish yet celebrate Christmas because it’s the “fun” holiday and they don’t want their kids to feel left out. It’s another excuse for a party. Something for their kids to fall in love with and look forward to each year. Santa comes to their house, they have a Christmas tree and stockings hung on the fireplace. I think all that separates them from their actual Christian friends is attending midnight mass at church on Christmas Eve. I try not to judge them but I feel like it’s a cop out and makes it difficult for the rest of us who try to keep Chanukah sacred and special for our kids. I’m proud of being Jewish, I want my kids to have the same pride and instead of feeling different, I want them to feel special. I work hard at making Chanukah special by lighting the menorah each night, singing the prayers, playing the traditional games and exchanging gifts for 8 nights.
I remember when I was little shopping in stores around Christmas and having EVERYONE wish me a Merry Christmas and saying straight back, “I don’t celebrate Christmas”. Because I didn’t and to me it was like someone wishing me a Happy Birthday when it wasn’t my birthday. I wasn’t being rude or bratty, I was just stating the truth. But it makes people uncomfortable. They feel the need to apologize and back peddle. As an adult, I just say “Thank You” because it’s easier. Simpler. Expected. I remember around last Christmas overhearing Hannah’s gymnastics coach asking everyone what they got from Santa and hearing Hannah pipe up that he doesn’t come to our house because she’s Jewish. The coach went on to say, “Awwww… that’s too bad, I’m sorry.” I wanted to jump through the glass window of the observation room and strangle her. Because it’s nothing to be sorry about. She’s Jewish. She doesn’t just have mean parents who refuse to let her in on the more popular holiday. Or does she? I do think that’s how some people feel. Hannah’s orthopedic surgeon who helped heal her broken leg last year told me, “Don’t worry, you’ll cave” when I told him we don’t celebrate Christmas. I’ll cave? It seems it’s expected to be just another negotiating point. Like when she’ll get her ears pierced or when I’ll buy her a cell phone.
Part of the problem is that the school Hannah is in has few Jewish kids. The elementary school she’ll be entering next year has a much higher ratio which should make things easier for her. And for me. I grew up in a very Catholic town. I grew used to being the minority. But I don’t want that for her. I don’t want her to always feel she needs to “explain”. I want her to feel her home is filled with holiday warmth no matter what decorations can be seen by passers-by on the street. I want all of the smells, sounds and sights that are true for this time of year to trigger a love for Chanukah and all that comes with it.
If any of my readers are Jewish and celebrate Christmas, I’d love to hear your views. I don’t mean to be judgmental, I just am confused by it. I’m also interested in hearing what other Jewish families do as far as decorations in their homes during the holidays.