Growing up in New York, in a town that was close to 95 percent Jewish, it never occurred to me that one day I would be celebrating Christmas. When I was 15, a friend invited a bunch of us--all Jewish--to decorate her family Christmas tree. It was fun, but totally foreign to me.
Initially I wondered, why would someone chop down a perfectly good tree, put it in their house and decorate it? It seemed strange. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the evening, being with my friend, her family and our other friends.
That was my only experience celebrating Christmas until I met and married a non-Jewish man. The first year we were married, we lived in an apartment. Holiday time came two months after our wedding. My husband wanted to go get "the tree." "What tree?" I asked. "Our Christmas tree, of course," he said.
All kinds of thoughts and feelings flooded my body. A tree? I didn't want a tree in my house! I was confused, alarmed, scared, angry, sad, and every other emotion I could think of. I was also in denial--after all, I had married a Catholic man! What did I expect would happen at Christmas?
Neither of us had grown up with much religion, and we had talked about not being religious as a couple. Then John asked me to go to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. I panicked, unsure what to do, and wondered if he wanted to be religious after all.
I didn't go to Mass with John, but we did get a tree. Then we had to go out to buy decorations for it. How does one decorate a Christmas tree? I felt like I should go along with John's traditions for his sake (a newlywed compromise). He talked about how much fun Christmas had been to him growing up. He finally told me it wasn't about religion: "For us, I just want the tree to put the presents under, and it's fun to decorate. It's not about any religion."
I accepted that, but I did ask him why he went to Mass on Christmas Eve. "I can't answer that. I suppose it was something we did every year," John answered.
We continued to get a tree every year, but he no longer went to Mass.
We also lit the Hanukkah candles. I thought, if we have a tree, why not do both? Why should I feel excluded? We didn't light the candles the first two years, because I never knew how. Growing up we turned on our electric Menorah lights for Hanukkah. We "celebrated" by giving each other eight little things, one each night. We never discussed the holiday. It was more like this is what we do for Hanukkah. It really didn't feel like we were celebrating anything. Now, as an adult, my cousin gave me the phonetic version of the prayer to say so we could start celebrating "my" holiday.
We celebrated Christmas with John's family, who were only a 15-minute drive from our apartment. Their tradition was to have everyone hang out at their house all Christmas day. So we did, too. The first year we arrived at 10 in the morning. The living room was literally covered with gifts. You could hardly walk in the room. I felt completely overwhelmed. I didn't know what I should be doing. I sat on the floor, astonished. I asked my husband if Christmas was usually like this. John told me it was. I remembered wondering why they needed all this stuff? How about giving some of it to charity? I knew neither John nor I needed anything, even though we were newly married. Were we going to go through this every year?
We did. The years went by and we had our first son. Then the second one. My father-in-law dressed up as Santa and appeared at my sister-in-law's house with presents for all the kids. They really believed in Santa. I hated it. How could I outright lie to my kids that some "jolly fat guy" could actually fly on a sled and fit down every chimney with presents for all the kids?
I discussed the Santa issue over and over with my husband. I just didn't get it. He kept trying to explain it was part of the magic of the season. It wasn't about religion. It was about family time. I could easily accept that but still felt uncomfortable about lying to the kids about some person that came down chimneys with gifts.
Also, once we had children, I wanted the boys to know the Jewish traditions.
We moved to California when the boys were still young. When they were little, the boys thought Hanukkah meant another reason to get presents. After they started Hebrew school and learned about the holiday, it meant more, and we all enjoyed lighting the candles, saying the prayers and talking about the miracle. After they each became a bar mitzvah, they decided (separately) that religion wasn't for them. Since then I always still light the candles--sometime with them, but usually without. They like Christmas more because they get "lots of stuff." Naturally, they enjoyed the idea of that more than the actual holiday. We did emphasize to the kids that holiday time is, most important, about family time.
Most years I just accepted getting the tree. Some years I tried to plan for us to go away for just enough of the school break to make sure we didn't have to get a tree.
One year, we decided to go to Hawaii. The boys were still young enough to believe in Santa. My husband and I decided to ask a friend to put the gifts out under the tree the day before we got home. I didn't realize how much this would backfire with my plans to be away in order to avoid all of the hype.
When we came home and saw the gifts under the tree, my kids were astounded! There really was a Santa, they said. Uh-oh. The following year, my oldest realized there was no Santa and played along for his brother's sake. A year later, we went to Hawaii again and our friend put the gifts under the tree. All the way home from the airport, my younger son kept saying, "If there are presents, then I know there really is a Santa."
Meanwhile, I was not happy with any of it. We continued to celebrate Hanukkah by lighting the menorah, reciting the prayers, and giving eight little gifts, one on each of the eight nights of the holiday. We discussed the meaning of Hanukkah every year and bought books and even the Rug Rats Hanukkah special video to help the boys understand.
The years have flown by; sometimes we get a tree and other times we don't. I no longer go with my three guys to get it. I've gone through years of dreading and hating all of it to mostly going along with it for family sake. This year, my oldest will be off at college and return the week before Christmas. What will happen? The three of them will go get the tree.