My friend, who I had been catching up with, suddenly stopped mid-sentence. He glanced over at me, an apologetic look taking over his face.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Do you, you know, even celebrate Thanksgiving?”
My raised eyebrow and pointed stare were enough for him to start backpedaling.
“Of course you do, of course. I’m not sure what I was thinking. Just that, you don’t celebrate Christmas, so…”
And there it was. That holiday I didn’t celebrate that somehow put me in some other worldly category that made it questionable whether I celebrated a holiday that gave thanks. I understand the confusion – somewhat. Christmas has become so commercialized that it almost feels like a secular holiday in the spirit of Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. And yet, it truly isn’t, at least to me. Just ask the folks who urge others to “put the Christ back in Christmas.” Christmas is a holiday entrenched in a religion that simply isn’t mine.
Despite knowing this, it’s never made it any easier to be a Jew on Christmas, all South Park jokes aside. And now that my son is old enough to understand the divide that takes place each December, it wears on me even more.
The other day we were at the bank and had to wait around for a teller. My son, in his oh-so-observant manner, started commenting on the holiday-themed decorations that had taken over the space.
“Ima? Why does everyone put up Christmas decorations and not Hanukkah ones?”
He paused as he took in the light up wire reindeer in the corner, swathed in red velvet.
“It’s like everyone celebrates Christmas. But we don’t… right?”
This shaky declaration from my son–my son who loves Hanukkah and all it entails–hit me right in the gut. Despite his love for Hanukkah, he is starting to realize that he’s in the minority. Last December, when my son caught on to the fact that there is another winter holiday that we don’t celebrate, he seemed at peace with it. We invited a few of his friends and their families over for a Hanukkah celebration where he showed them his menorah and allowed them to help him light it. In turn, to complete the circle of sharing our holidays, we went to his good friends’ house for Christmas eve. I did the best I could to explain that we weren’t also celebrating Christmas, but that we were sharing in our friends’ celebration, like they did with us at Hanukkah. That seemed to satisfy him and he had no problem with our traditional movie and Hibachi dinner on the 25th.
This year, he’s noticing things a bit more, like how some places have mini Christmas trees or pictures of Santa Claus up in the windows. While a few places also put out the token menorah or dreidel, it just isn’t the same, even in our progressive little town. It certainly helps that he spends his day at a Jewish day school where his holiday is the norm rather than the exception. I wonder how this winter season would have played out had we stayed at his previous school where he was clearly in the minority, religion wise.
But even with the daily Jewish affirmation he receives from school, we still live in a country where Christmas music plays on the radio, the television promotes a plethora of Christmas specials (Ima! I can’t wait to see the Charlie Brown Christmas show!), and everywhere you look, it’s truly beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Trying to navigate it all as an adult can become overwhelming, watching your child do so is even more difficult.
In the meantime, I offer some platitudes and words of comfort, I’m also trying to allow him to figure out some of this on his own. We ended up having a great discussion on the way home from the bank. I agreed with him that it wasn’t that fair that the bank didn’t have any Hanukkah decorations up, and that it made me feel kind of bummed out too. We came with ideas on how to combat that, and his suggestion to draw a picture about Hanukkah for the bank to hang up warmed my heart. While his drawing may not change the way the bank–or anywhere else in town–decorates in December, it might just make another Jewish kid, making his or her way through the red and green tinged last month of the year, feel like their holiday matters too.