My first Christmas memory comes from kindergarten. The day before winter break, the teacher handed out pictures of Santa for us to color. “Oh,” I told her, embarrassed, “I can’t color that, I’m Jewish.” My teacher looked at me strangely (I realize now, not because I was Jewish, but because why would that prevent me from coloring a picture of Santa?), but she found a blank sheet of paper for me to draw on, and the morning passed without any further excitement.
As you can see, I have always been one to do things by the book.
And then I married someone who isn’t Jewish. From the time we started dating, my husband’s family has been extremely welcoming. They folded me into their circle like I had always been a part. I was invited to participate in all of their Christmas traditions and rituals (mostly secular), and I gladly accepted. After all, what Jew doesn’t love a good ritual? I learned the songs and took part in their particular family traditions: envelopes are used to help decorate the tree, chocolate oranges belong in the toe of the stockings, and you have to wait for the sleigh bells to ring before you can come out into the living room on Christmas morning.
Of course, over the years, my husband, being open-minded and having had a Jewish grandmother, has jumped right in on many of our Jewish traditions. He sings enthusiastically at our annual seder, he cheers me on as I try to perfect braiding challah, and he definitely fries a heavenly latke.
Once we had our own house, and certainly once we had a child, I took on a lot of the responsibility of continuing these traditions, especially the Christmas ones, in our own home. I knitted us each a Christmas stocking. I made sure to make time each year for us to choose and then decorate a tree. I dressed the family in matching pajamas. And I also began to feel a certain amount of stress and pressure around the holiday. I really wanted not only to continue these traditions, but also to get them right. I would spend weeks worrying over whether a particular gift was appropriate, or if I had all of the necessary things ready to make sure Christmas would go according to plan.
Last year, I was especially happy with the prep work I had done. Wreaths hung on the doors, a few presents were wrapped and under the twinkling tree. Not only that, but I had remembered to get an advent calendar even before Thanksgiving came around. So on December 1, my 2-year-old daughter and I triumphantly placed the first ornament on our tree-shaped calendar. We were ready for the festivities to begin.
The next day, we had a few friends over. All of them commented on how festive our home was. I was so proud. And then one of them said, “That’s really interesting, how you do your advent calendar backward like that!” She meant it sincerely, but I was mortified. Backward? It had never even occurred to me to begin at the other end! What if I offended someone with my mistake? After all, the candles on the menorah have specific rules of order. Did we need to start over? What would everyone think?
Though I could have covered my mistake, I decided to confess, and we all laughed. It was a moment of levity that relieved the pressure I had been feeling for weeks. It didn’t matter which way we completed the advent calendar, not really. And it didn’t matter if the house smelled like pine or if the tree looked just right.
This year, Hanukkah and Christmas overlap, which will add to the chaos of our interfaith household and to the stress level of this Jewish mother. But what I will try my best not to do is worry about making everything “perfect,” whatever that really means. We will have our annual latke party, light the menorah, and maybe even splurge on some sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts). We will sing Christmas carols, Santa will come, and we will have a special Christmas dinner.
And, just as a little reminder to myself, we will continue our new tradition of filling in the advent calendar the wrong way around.