The December Dilemma
How we made it clear to my family that my kids will celebrate Hanukkah, not Christmas
A few weeks after we became parents, I wrote my mother a long letter about what we expected in the way of Christmas: nothing. No presents, no storybooks, no hand-knit "Hanukkah stocking," no nothing. "We will come to be with you while you celebrate your holiday," I wrote, "but it's not our daughter's holiday."
She stopped knitting.
"Okay," she told me on the phone a few days later. "But how about the pageant? We don't have a baby Jesus yet."
"No," I told her.
"Just think, though, Lizzie," she pressed. "Wouldn't it be good for our town to see a black, Jewish Jesus with two moms?"
I thought of the little straight, white, Christian town where I grew up. "Yes," I said. "But no."
It was a pretty tense December, and it was all my fault. We'd waited years to be parents; I could have spent some more time preparing my family for what was to come. I just thought it would be easier once the baby arrived. We'd pass her from one to the next, inspect her tiny fingernails, and then it would just come up like the sweet burst of breath in a long anticipated burp: she's a Jew.
But I didn't know my first child would be a fall baby, leaving so little time to prepare for The Big C.
The Jew-ish Catholic Family
And they knew the burp was coming. My partner is Jewish, after all. We had a Jewish-ish "wedding"; some of them even signed the ketubah. But the challenge is, my Irish Catholic family is already a little bit Jewish. See, my mother's mother--who raised her children Catholic and knitted Christmas stockings for all the grandchildren she lived to meet--was Jewish. My mother learned this as a young adult and started honoring her heritage by celebrating some Jewish holidays. She chose Hanukkah and Passover, I assume because they're the most understandable to Catholics. We get lighting candles in December, and in fact, that menorah fit really nicely in the center of our Advent wreath on the dining room table! And Passover, well, let's just say you can squeeze a hell of a lot of Last Supper references into a seder.
So my family knew just enough Judaism to be dangerous--to wrap it up in a big red ribbon, tape on a six pointed star, and plop it under the tree. Well meaning, yes, but not in line with our new parent intentions.
No offense to the classic, of course.
We played it safe that year, traveling to my parents' home on the morning of the 25th, rather than the night before, so they wouldn't feel strange about no stocking, no reading The Night Before Christmas. We arrived in time to help prepare dinner and then traveled with my parents to my sisters' homes. We gave presents to their children. And the next night we filled my parents' home with the smell of latkes, lit the candles, and allowed my family to bestow gifts upon our little daughter.
We returned home the day after that and, well, went on living our lives. We found that going to synagogue with a baby asleep on your shoulder is a thousand times more fun than going alone. We collected a passel of friends who gathered in each other's homes for Shabbat dinners, or apples and honey, or gluing pretend haroset on recycled paper plates. And a few years later, we looked back to see what we had done: burped up a real live toddling Jew.
Fall Baby, Round Two
As luck would have it, our second child was also born in the fall, four years after the first. But his arrival was late enough in the season that by the time we were through with all the adoption bureaucracy and ceremonial visiting, we settled in at home only a week before Christmas. No one expected us to travel so quickly with our preemie, so we spent our first December 25th in the quiet of our nest. The silence was exquisite. Some Jewish friends came over late in the day bearing hot soup and hand-me-downs.
That year I sat in services with the baby breathing on my neck and the big 4-year-old on my partner's lap, and our Rabbi talked about what she called the "real" miracle of Hanukkah. She told us how every night she drove home with her children and watched their eyes fix on house after house, decorated with colored lights and trees and inflatable reindeer. And how they would enter their own dark home and turn on the heat. And the kids would set the candles in the menorah while she made dinner, and then together they would say the blessings and light the lights. "It's not the oil," she told us. "Or winning the war. It's the choice to carry on our traditions, even when the alternatives shine so brightly."
So the next year, when it was fall again (as if this is just what happens to us while everyone else is stuffing their turkeys) we arrived home with another little baby. And each week thereafter, bundled in her coats and pulling her suitcase, my mother arrived as well. She stayed three nights at a time and helped. I knew these were her nights of preparation, reserved for wrapping, baking, and arranging the pageant. But she came anyway, and brought the baby into her room, letting us sleep while she patted that boy's tiny back.
And then one of those nights, with my littlest guy snoring on her chest, she told me the news: all those families in that straight, white, Catholic church of hers, and not a one with a fall baby.
I remembered that first letter, scrawled in such steadfast conviction. We'd known just how to do it, hadn't we! Extracted the tentacles of Christianity so carefully out of our Judaism. Cleared the path for our children and swept away the tinsel before their precious feet passed. It took the audacity of new-parentness to write and send, but I was thankful for it. Thankful for the chutzpah to draw those lines and make space for our family. Thankful because those five years had allowed me the chance to give my mother a gift now.
"Yes," I said. "Yes. That would be fun." And I knew it would be. Because I knew my kids could come and watch their little brother be Jesus, and sit on their grandparents' laps, and look at that big glorious tree, and still know, with the milky sweetness of a new baby's breath: they are Jews.