A confession: I have a Christmas tree. It’s slightly larger than a “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree, but it’s standing proudly in my family room.
For 17+ years, I have been a mom to two Jewish kids and we’ve always celebrated Hanukkah. Not Christmas, not Chrismukkah—Hanukkah. There have been dreidels, latkes, hanukkiyot, and various versions of the infamous Adam Sandler song. We’ve hung “Happy Hanukkah” banners and eaten plenty of donuts.
I grew up with a Jewish mother and lapsed-Christian father, but to appease my Christian grandparents my mother went all out for Christmas (though I don’t recall her cooking a ham). We had a Christmas tree, Christmas presents, and my mother would play her favorite Christmas song, “The Little Drummer Boy,” on repeat. We also celebrated Hanukkah with my Jewish grandmother, but it didn’t get the same fanfare that Christmas got. I remember being teased by the Jewish kids for “not really being Jewish” and being teased by the Christian kids for “not really being Christian.” Although I was raised Jewish, I also remember being thoroughly confused.
My kids’ father is a lapsed Catholic and fairly early on in our relationship, I established some boundaries: Jewish kids, Jewish house, Jewish holidays. Other religious holidays could be celebrated with friends and neighbors, but my children would be raised in a Jewish house to firmly establish their Jewish identities.
Even as preschoolers and in elementary school, Hannah and Daniel were proud of their Judaism. When we moved to the South, they firmly embraced Judaism and Hannah became hyper-aware of all the Christmas decorations in public places. In some ways, it became a difficult time of the year for her, because her pride in her Judaism led her to feel excluded during Christmas.
Hannah’s dislike of Christmas softened as she got older and became friends with Hindu and Muslim kids at her school. So it wasn’t just the Jewish kids who didn’t celebrate Christmas—other kids didn’t celebrate it either. And as her knowledge of Judaism deepened, she began to appreciate the beauty of the Christmas story and music.
And then this year my dear friend Lisa offered me a Christmas tree. She is Catholic, but I call her the “Catholic Jewish Mom.” She adores my kids, is effusive with praise, and is usually one of the first people I call with good news because I know she’ll be just as excited as I am. She’s had my back through some very rough times, and I know she respects my Judaism as I respect her faith.
So when she offered me the tree, I paused—but not for long. The kids are now 15 and 17, and while their Jewish identities are still being shaped, I didn’t think a Christmas tree would confuse them. On the other hand, I’ve had a hard time explaining to my Jewish friends why, exactly, I have a Christmas tree next to our hanukkiyot. I didn’t really understand how polarizing the tree can be, even for adults.
But when my friend offered the tree, I really was focused on the intention, the kavanah, behind the gift. Lisa offered me the tree as a way of sharing her holiday joy with me. It wasn’t a “dis” to my Judaism, but a means of spreading happiness and kindness in an otherwise crummy 2016.
The tree looked a little bare without ornaments, and naturally, the kids and I don’t have any. Our compromise was to buy cat-themed ornaments for our cat, Kitty, who joined our family two Decembers ago. So far we’ve thoroughly enjoyed the tree. I like the new addition to our home, albeit only for a few weeks. It forces me out of my winter funk and reminds me of the many blessings my family, friends (and pets) have given me.