I think Christmas and I are breaking up. Itʼs not an easy thing to say. But nevertheless, there it is; itʼs time to end my Christmas love affair. My rabbi/husband will be thrilled.
I suppose a little explanation is in order. I do not celebrate Christmas. I never have. I grew up in a Jewish household and Christmas, unlike bacon, was strictly off limits. As young children my brother and I were carted off to the Concord Hotel in the Catskills where Christmas was apparently also verboten. There we ate (and ate and ate) and swam and played and hid from all things tinsel-strewn and poinsettia-adorned.
As we grew, and our grandparents made what used to be the legally-required pilgrimage to the Sunshine State, trips to the Concord became flights to Ft. Lauderdale, and Christmas began to creep in. At first it was just a palm tree covered in white lights here and there, but slowly this lovely holiday crept into my consciousness.
By the time we hit junior high my parents, feeling secure in their Jewish immersion duties, moved the Florida trip to February break and we began to spend December taking in New York Cityʼs delights of the season: shop windows on Fifth Avenue, the Nutcracker, the Rockettes, even a stroll right under that majestic Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. I fell in love.
Who wouldnʼt? What could be bad about Christmas? My mother began to leave the radio (remember the radio?) on through December and I learned the joys of Christmas music. I moved on from “Jingle Bells” and was delightfully surprised to learn the little tune my father sang, “Itʼs Beginning to Smell A Lot Like Hannukah,” was actually a lovely, and not remotely latke-referencing, Christmas song. Where had this been hiding? Oh the joy and thrill! My romance picked up speed. If there was a Christmas special I watched it, a Christmas song, I sang it. I was in, I was hooked.
Once I struck out on my own, the love affair only grew. A college roommate introduced me to Advent calendars; eat a piece of chocolate every day counting the days to Christmas? Sign me up! Turns out you can buy Christmas albums on CD (remember CDs?), so hello Tower Records! And itʼs not just Celine and Christina who have Christmas albums–the Jews are in on it, too. If Barbra and Neil can have Christmas, why canʼt I?
The longer I was on my own, the more of Christmas I embraced. I never decorated my home, but I took to dragging friends to midnight mass, and sought out Christmas event after Christmas event. Letʼs face it, itʼs no coincidence that Christmas occurs just as winter is starting to really get a grip; days are short and grow increasingly colder, storms pick up, skies are grey. Letting Christmas lights, food, music, and warmth in does for me what it does for anyone–makes these first bitter days of winter easier to swallow, brings light to short dark days, and delays the onset of bitter winter grumpiness. Adding a full menorah when the holidays coincide only makes the season sweeter.
But this year things have changed. Now Iʼm not alone. Now I have children, children who are old enough to be aware of the world, but not nearly old enough to comprehend it all.
My children are 4 and 6. One goes to Jewish preschool and the other to a Chabad Hebrew School. Last year when Christmas shined her sparkly light our way I automatically kept my love affair quiet for fear they might choose Christmas over Hanukkah. And I did Hanukkah big. I built a huge pile of presents they were required to work down each night. I gathered every menorah I had ever collected (and a small fire extinguisher just in case), so that each night we lit the place up. We ate latkes and jelly doughnuts and played dreidel until we devoured every last piece of gelt, every last lick of applesauce to be found in our home, and several others.
And so, by the time we attended a beautiful Christmas party on Christmas Eve, our kids were a bit holidayʼd out. Oh yes, the tree was beautiful, but at 3 and 5, what good is something sparkly and pretty but that each and every time you go to touch it brings several adult hands down on you? And Christmas may be great, but one night of presents? Puh-leese.
But not this year. This year the calendar did me in–oh sure, the world (OK, America; OK, a few states) might have been charmed by Thanksgivukkah, but it turns out for me it pulled back the curtain on Christmas before I was really prepared to share it, and now the questions have started coming fast and furious:
“When is Santa coming to our house?”
“Santa isnʼt coming to our house.”
“Santa is for the kids who celebrate Christmas and we donʼt celebrate Christmas.”
“Why?” Ummmmm… ummmmm…. “Mom?”
“Well, we celebrate Hanukkah.”
“Yeah but we did that already with the turkey and the latkes, now itʼs Christmastime, donʼt you see the decorations? And when are we putting up our decorations?”
“We donʼt decorate for Christmas.”
“We donʼt celebrate Christmas.”
“We celebrate Hanukkah”
“But mom, my friend celebrates Christmas and Hanukkah!”
“Mom, tell Santa I want a razor scooter.”
“No. Santaʼs not coming to our house. Havenʼt we covered this?”
“Mom, can I just tell Santa myself? Iʼll tell him Iʼm just pretending! Canʼt I just say hi?”
“No. Yes. Maybe. Ask your father.”
Grrrr. Curse you, Thanksgivukkah! Curse you!!
The things is, Iʼm not quite sure what to teach them anymore. I still love Christmas. I enjoy everything about Christmas. I have no problem with not celebrating it but enjoying it nonetheless. And yet Iʼm not entirely sure how to strike that balance and still answer their very reasonable questions. I want to give in to the big blue eyes looking at Christmas in wonder and wanting in. I want them to enjoy Christmas but still understand that it isnʼt ours. Thatʼs important, isnʼt it?
You see, I grew up culturally very Jewish. We werenʼt terribly observant, but our world was Jewish. And Iʼm sure that somewhere underneath, lurking in the dark, were the experiences of anti-Semitism my parents had known. While I have had the great grace and good fortune to live a life generally untouched by overt acts of anti-Semitism, some of the Judaism I have inherited has been tinged by something frightening, and worse, threatening, from outside. Stay inside the circle and you can be Jewish any which way you like, but step outside and tempt the fates. And so, part of the reason my parents kept Christmas at bay was because it was, to them, a tempting path to either an integration that might destroy our circle, or was itself a dark prelude to bad times always possible on the horizon.
And so what do I do now with Christmas this year? Do we really have to break up? I havenʼt played any Christmas music at home but I allow it in the car; advent calendars are out but we made a ginger bread house on our last snow day. We will go to a Christmas party this Christmas Eve and we will put the kids in p.j.ʼs, pour hot cocoa into a thermos, and take a ride to see all the Christmas lights around our town.
Maybe Christmas and I donʼt need to break up completely. Maybe weʼll just cool our heels a bit this year. I have a feeling Christmas will understand.