I didn’t see it coming. Not at all. I naively assumed that since my children are being raised Orthodox, in a neighborhood where essentially all their playmates are Jewish, in a school where all their classmates are Jewish, we would somehow not ever have to discuss a certain jolly winter holiday. Not until they were older and we could have a rational conversation.
But as we drove down a busy street lined with houses and businesses decorated with garlands of lights, wreaths of green and red, and other festive adornments, I heard my oldest son, not quite 7, yell out from his seat in the rear of the car, “Look! It’s Christmas there!” Then a younger son chimed in, “I see Christmas! It’s Christmas there, see it?”
“Mommy, did you know that there’s a man with a white beard and a red suit who brings presents?” my oldest son continued. “And he says, um, he says ‘ho ho ho’?”
“You know he’s not real, right?” I responded sharply, surprising myself with my knee-jerk reaction.
“Yeah, I know. And I know that deer don’t really fly through the air, either.”
This knowledge didn’t seem to prevent him from falling under the spell of the magic of the season, though. A few days later, he saw a display of fake presents under a fake tree with a dusting of fake snow and asked me, “Mommy, do you think Santa brought those presents?”
I realized that I was afraid that they would feel like they were missing out. And that someday they would realize that they don’t celebrate this fun, glitzy holiday because of a choice I made before they were even born. That the allure of the tinsel and lights and, obviously, the magical present-distribution would somehow lessen their love for Judaism.
Certainly I myself have a complicated relationship with Christmas. I have very fond memories from childhood of sitting around the tree, going through the presents with my brother, and sorting them into their appropriate piles. I remember plates full of rectangles of sliced cheese and circles of salami. I’m sure there was eggnog. There was definitely fruitcake.
Now I feel empathy for my parents as they celebrate a holiday that is part of a religion I left, a holiday that I don’t come home for, that my children do not celebrate.
For me, it is the most bittersweet part of being a convert. Overall, things are good. My relationship with my parents is good; my children’s relationship with my parents is good. My relationship with Judaism is good, and my children’s relationship with Judaism is good.
Yet I do feel more pensive during this time of year when we are not with my family. Even if we were physically there, it wouldn’t be the same. And so I feel, in a way, like it’s some sort of karmic situation where my children, my super Jewish children, who are excited about Shabbat and Sukkot and Hanukkah and Purim and all the Jewish holidays, my children who like to sing “Acheinu” at the top of their lungs and say their blessings out loud, these same children are wide-eyed and enthusiastic about Santa and Christmas decorations.
The reality is that we live in a country where the vast majority of people celebrate Christmas. According to a 2014 Pew research study, just a little over 70% of Americans identify as Christians, 96% of which celebrate Christmas. Another Pew study from 2013 revealed that 81% of non-Christians celebrate Christmas. That’s definitely the majority of people in our country. And it is felt acutely during Yuletide, when it’s hard to find a corner that is not decked out with boughs of holly.
So regardless of my feelings on the holiday, or on any of the origins of the customs, the fact remains that an overwhelming amount of our neighbors (well, outside of our immediate heavily Orthodox neighborhood) are celebrating the season, regardless of the reason.
And I want my children to be respectful of those around them, to be aware that they are in the minority (Orthodox) of a minority (the Jewish people). So even if we don’t agree with the theological underpinnings of Christmas, we should still act with derech eretz, with decency when people around us wish to share their good tidings of comfort and joy.
I hope I will be able to raise my children to be confident in their own Jewish traditions, but to also be courteous and considerate of the multitude of people who believe something else. I hope that our weekly celebrations of Shabbat will be warm, fond memories for my children. That the Jewish observance that fills our home will fill my children with love and contentment and curiosity for Jewish life, so that all that is merry and bright about the most celebrated December holiday can be appreciated, but not envied.
I don’t think it’s necessary to be a Scrooge to be proud of Jewish traditions during this time of year, and I hope I can be a good model of this for my children. The next time they gleefully shout out, “It’s Christmas there!” maybe I will respond with a low-key, “It sure is.”