I’m a veteran of the December Dilemma wars.
I’ve written about it for years, with exhaustive, ruminative blog posts. Every December, my holiday tradition has involved putting up a Christmas tree, finding enough Hanukkah candles for all of the menorahs (seriously, does everyone light 15 menorahs or is that just me?), and fighting with my husband, my poor mother, and myself.
Everyone has an opinion about my holiday celebration: was I celebrating too much Christmas? Not enough? Was I sending mixed messages to my Jewish kids, allowing them to celebrate traditions from my childhood, from before I converted to Judaism? It occurred to me that when my children grew up, that was what they’d remember—not the joy of celebrating holidays together, but the existential angst of the December Dilemma.
My husband and I will celebrate 15 years of marriage next February, so it might just be that we’ve finally fought all the fights and settled into a routine where we both know where the other stands. We’ll have Chinese food on Christmas Eve. We’ll eat too much chocolate and have our Jewish friends over for a big Christmas dinner. We’ll light candles every night for Hanukkah, and I’ll buy Trader Joe latkes, and my daughter will make a batch by hand, just because she likes it that way.
The truth is that it’s not just that we’ve been doing this for a decade and a half. It’s not that we celebrated our oldest child’s bat mitzvah earlier this year, and arguing about her religious observance seems superfluous now. The truth is that after the last year, I’ve learned to take the opportunities to celebrate whenever I can.
This past March, my son, who was 9 at the time, was in a bike accident. He spent the next three months in and out of the hospital and ended up with emergency brain surgery to salvage what was left of his vision after a pseudo-tumor. During this whole process, we learned a few things about ourselves, about Judaism, about community. And most importantly, about being grateful for what we have, who we are, and what’s important to us.
I learned that our Jewish observance is there to hold us up when we need it. We’ve always done Shabbat dinner, but during the recovery time, it took on a new meaning. We all counted on that one night, when my stepdaughters would come and we all crowded around the table. It was the center of our week. We learned that Passover wasn’t about arguing over whether or not it was permissible to eat Cheerios, because my son’s dietary restrictions meant that we were grateful for anything we could get into him. We celebrated the New Year, and mourned a little bit on Yom Kippur for what we had lost in the past year, and prayed that this next year would be better. We connected with people whom we had only known by name or smiled at during Kiddush after services. Strangers volunteered to deliver meals to us when we were in the hospital, to help us with errands or childcare when we needed it the most.
So this year, we’re going to put up our Christmas tree and not worry about what it means for our religious identity. We’re going to be grateful for the candy canes and the tinsel and the holiday specials. We’re going to celebrate with my side of the family with all the enthusiasm we can muster, because that’s what life is about. We’re going to put up every menorah we’ve got, open our house for a huge Hanukkah Open House, and eat latkes and fried donuts.
It’s about being happy when you can, about spending time with the people you love and not agonizing over the message you’re sending. My kids have learned the hard way that sometimes horrible, horrible things happen with no warning at all, and that all that matters is how you handle the aftermath.
The December Dilemma seems somehow so meaningless now. How could celebrating holidays with people you love ever be a competition? Make the cookies, hang the stockings, grate the potatoes, and light the candles. Take every opportunity you can to celebrate, to rejoice, and be grateful for the ability to do so.
I don’t know if it was the accident or just the 15 years of battling the December Dilemma, but I do know that I don’t care at all about anyone else’s approval or worries or opinions over whether or not it’s appropriate for my Jewish family to celebrate Christmas in addition to Hanukkah. This year, and every year after this, I plan on celebrating everything I can, because in the end, I’m so grateful that we are all still here to do so.