Growing up Jewish in the small and overwhelmingly white Christian community of Tumwater, Washington meant that Christmas was everywhere. It meant I sang very religious Christmas songs in our public school holiday concerts. It meant that I went caroling with my friends every year around the neighborhood, and went to midnight mass with their families. My parents would drive us around for hours looking at the festive lights and decorations on people’s houses, and sometimes we would even put up outdoor lights at our house too. Even my parent’s Jewish friends threw Christmas Eve parties.
I come from a sort of interfaith family. While my mother is not technically Jewish, she isn’t really Christian either. She was raised that sort of agnostic Christian who celebrated the major holidays, but never went to church. When she married my father who was raised in a Conservative community in New York, she was cool with raising her children in the Jewish faith, as long as she could remain true to herself and her traditions. She has her own personal faith that involves both communing with Great Spirit and singing in the synagogue choir.
As a child, we had stockings hung by the chimney with care and a bedecked tree looming over a pile of presents sent from my mom’s side of the family. The radio was tuned to the Christmas music station. My dad was always a little aloof about the whole thing, but he would still get in on the action. However, despite all the eggnog and gingerbread houses, the bottom line was Christmas was not a real holiday for us. Our Jewish holidays, including Hanukkah, were sacred and important. They were our home and Christmas was just a masquerade party we attended every year. As we grew up, the level of Christmas celebration declined a little, but we still always have stockings and some amount of revelry.
I love Christmas. I love the smells and the music. I love that it is the one time of year people throw open their curtains, and invite you to look inside their homes at their sparkling trees. I love how beautiful twinkling lights are everywhere, and shed some light on the dark of winter. I love bringing an evergreen tree inside my home, and remembering years and loved ones past with each ornament unpacked.
Fast-forward 25 years, and despite overwhelming odds against finding a nice Jewish boy in Washington State after a lifetime of dating non-Jews, I am now married to my amazing and native Washingtonian Jewish husband. We live in Seattle with our 2-year old son, and have another little boy on the way.
When we started dating, one of our very first fights was about Christmas. I wanted him to come down to Tumwater to celebrate Christmas with my family. He doesn’t believe in celebrating Christmas, and didn’t want anything to do with it. I tried explaining to him that nothing about our festivities was religious in nature. He wasn’t having any of it. How could I make him understand that while Christmas was a part of my childhood, and a part of me, it was not a part of my faith? We ultimately tabled the discussion until the following year when I succeeded in getting him down for Christmas with the family. After some initial discomfort, he eventually came to see that our celebration was totally secular, albeit with more trimmings than he was used to. But that didn’t mean he was at all comfortable with this kind of celebration in our home.
I have come to believe there are two kinds of Jews when it comes to Christmas (and I think it is especially true for those of us from places where Jews are harder to come by). There are Christmas “embracivists”–those who lean in to the Christmas spirit and invite the lights and warmth of the season into their lives and homes, but leave Baby Jesus at the door. And then there are Christmas “rejectivists”–those who see the holiday festivities as ‘other,’ and create a separation that helps reinforce their own identity and community. Both are adaptive techniques created to survive the December Deluge.
So, what happens when an embracivist marries a rejectivist? I want the lights and the jolly times in my living room. I don’t want my son to be isolated from the celebrations of his friends (especially as he has a late December birthday). My husband wants a home and a family life that lives out our Jewish values, and involves no tinsel whatsoever. He doesn’t hate Christmas, but it is not his and he doesn’t want it to be.
For the last several years, we have compromised by throwing an over-the-top Hanukkah party with a ‘burning bush,’ a room dedicated to Battle Dreidel, and my brother dressed as Hanukkah Harry handing out useful presents. My husband has gone along with this, but he has not truly embraced our Christmatizing of Hanukkah.
This year, we didn’t have the party and I found myself adrift with no tree…I mean…no burning bush to trim, no lights to hang, and no Sangria-schewitz to make. The candles of our menorah still gave me the spiritual light I needed to get through the long, dark and rainy days of a Pacific Northwest winter. But what about the temporal glitz I so want?
My husband and I both agree we want a Jewish home and to raise our children in the Jewish faith. The bigger question for me is how our Jewish home and family will relate to an outside world that is obsessed with Santa and his reindeer. Do we have to choose one way or the other, or can we both embrace and reject at the same time? We don’t have the answer yet, but I have hope we can find a merry medium.