This week, on the darkest day of the year so far, I found comfort in the dark drive home with my kids up a long hilly street in our neighborhood. As we drove higher and higher up the hill, the Christmas lights became more abundant and spectacular, dotting a sea of blackness with color and zigzag designs. It looked magical. It felt hopeful. The lights buoyed my spirits.
I didn’t always feel that way.
Growing up, I absolutely hated Christmas. Everything about it — the music, the commercials, the “holiday” specials, the colors red and green, even the lights — bothered me. As people around me got more excited about the approach of Christmas, and the decorations in stores and public spaces crept closer and closer to Thanksgiving and even Halloween, I remember my mood growing angry, sour, and resentful.
I wasn’t the only one in my family who felt this way. I distinctly remember my dad coming home livid from the grocery store one December day. A checkout clerk had said “Merry Christmas” to him, and he schooled the teenager about how not everyone celebrates Christmas.
We had our own Christmas traditions as a family. Like many Jews, we did Chinese food and movies, or we stayed in and played games and had quality family time, safe from the onslaught of Christmas cheer outside our home.
It wasn’t that we were “grinches” about America’s favorite secular Christian holiday. It’s that for many Jews (and I’m sure other minority religions as well) Christmas is the time of year where no matter how integrated you feel into American society, you are reminded of how much you are still “the other.” White Jews have the privilege of usually being able to fit in to the dominant mainstream culture the rest of the year. But at this time of year, the message many Jews feel is that they are different and don’t belong.
Maybe this is why many Jews say, “Screw that feeling — I’m just going to celebrate Christmas.” For me, that never felt like the right way to quell the feeling being “the other.” While many people do celebrate Christmas in a secular way, Christmas in essence is still a Christian holiday —heck, it even has the word “Christ” in it —albeit one that has been co-opted for secular and commercial purposes. For me, it just feels inherently wrong to celebrate a Christian holiday.
Despite the feeling of being isolated, I grew to take pride in being different, even at this time of year. I was reminded of all the Jewish friends in my social circle who felt similarly. Many of them became my Chinese-food-and-movie-on-Christmas friends over the years.
Things shifted for me again 10 years ago, a few months after I met the man who would become my husband and I found myself driving to meet his family and participate in their Christmas celebrations. My husband, who grew up in a relatively secular interfaith family, had downplayed the “Christmasiness” of his family’s celebration in order to sell me on the experience. But when I saw the tree and the stockings, it was clear to me what I was getting into. I made it through that first year and each year since, even finding joy in the family time and the traditions.
Every year, I still find myself remembering that feeling of otherness from my childhood (and most of my adulthood). Even when I participate in my husband’s family’s Christmas traditions, Christmas is still that time of year when I am reminded of my Jewishness. But I’ve learned to find strength in the feeling of being different.
I’ve also found that not hating Christmas has opened me up to the possibility of finding beauty in the lights on my drive home. These lights remind me of the lights of Hanukkah. One of traditions of Hanukkah is to put one’s menorah in the window, to publicize the miracle of the holiday, to shine the light from our homes out into the community.
The lights of both holidays speak to the common urge of all humanity to seek out light in dark times, to yearn for hope and miracles, to look for the good in something that once felt bad. And that makes me feel like I belong.