Friends lighting the menorah at Mychal’s family’s Hanukkah party circa 1986
When I was growing up, my parents threw the most elegant Hanukkah parties. My mom is a decorator at her core and relished the opportunity to throw a party with pizazz. There was fancy juice for the kids, our best dresses and most of all, a gorgeously decorated house. Down the bannister streamed a garland she would create—some years a deep green theme with flowers or elegant dreidels, other years covered in white like the snow we would never see in Southern California. The entire house became transformed by whatever festive theme she had chosen for that year.
Year after year, relatives, friends and our synagogue’s rabbi criticized her elaborate decorations as too Christmassy. Not one to shrink away from a challenge, she quickly quipped that Christmas had not cornered the market on decorations.
But then one year, there were angels. She streamed them up and down the bannister. This time, her critics were livid. They claimed that this was now, officially, a Christmas party. My mother retorted that angels were ours. They originate in our Torah—they visited our patriarchs Abraham and Sarah, ascended and descended Jacob’s ladder, and there were the angels Michael, Rafael, Gabriel and Uriel. Cherubim were even pictured above the holy ark in the Temple in Jerusalem. [More on Jewish angels can be found here.]
She argued that many seasonal symbols like poinsettias, snow and even her angels, had been co-opted by American-style Christmas. She didn’t see why Jews should be deprived of them. There was nothing left that was “kosher” for Hanukkah decorating if she obeyed the ever-growing list of off-limits symbols and colors. Yes, there were paper menorahs and the like. But she hated the kitschy Jewish stuff most people hung and waited for the one holiday when she could get away with more of a flare.
What were her skeptics, many of whom weren’t so traditionally Jewish themselves, worried about? I think her flare set off a knee-jerk reaction. Maybe for them, Christmas was an annual symbol of how our tiny Jewish minority is threatened by a dominant Christian culture—and my mom was blurring that line. Maybe attending this Hanukkah party represented their need to be in a distinctly Jewish place during the onslaught of the Christmas commercial season. Perhaps her decorations were encroaching on their Jewish particularism.
Mychal and her dad lighting the menorah
Of course, Hanukkah only rose to its prominent position in Jewish American life because of Christmas. Anywhere else in the world, Hanukkah is the most minor of Jewish holidays. But here in the United States, we felt it needed to combat the red and green tinsel, and we lifted up from the complicated story of Hanukkah a simple message of religious tolerance.
My mom wanted in on the fun. It is a little sad to be part of a society in which the majority is participating in something magical while we merely peer in at it from outside as a matter of principle. We are confused as a group about what to do with Christmas as it morphs from a religious holiday into an American cultural festival. And now that our families are more diverse, that confusion is only exacerbated. A tree—which seems like it should be just that and no more—often holds a lot of history for Jews. Participating in Christmas can serve as a symbol that we have given up trying to be unique. At worst, it can feel like Jews have caved to the majority: the very majority that many times throughout history tried to obliterate us. Yet for someone who grew up with Christmas, the prospect of giving it up means sacrificing a powerful sense of comfort, love, memories and family.
What I advocate most for interfaith couples is that they listen to each other as they describe their needs at the holidays. I often hear people talking past each other about what they can or cannot tolerate. But they rarely dig deeply enough into the particulars of why they need what they need at this time of year.
Even for families who have it all figured out, emotions at this time of year can set off new discussions and tensions. It is one of the few times of the year when extended family enter the picture and have needs and expectations of their own. Whatever your Decembers are like, this is a great time to open up about what the season felt like for you as a child and what emotions—positive, negative or neutral—they bring up as adults. No matter what you choose as your own family traditions, getting that clarity about what you expect and need will help make the season what you want it to be.