When I married my husband more than 20 years ago, I assumed we'd celebrate Jewish holidays at his parents' home, Christian holidays at my parents' home, and Jewish and Christian holidays in our home. I knew it would be hectic, but at the time it seemed it would be the nice sort of hectic that comes with having too much of a good thing. For a variety of reasons, those holiday expectations didn't pan out.
At first, there was so much going on with raising and adopting kids that I didn't pay much attention to the lack of Christmas in our home. I was not a practicing Catholic. We were raising our kids to self-identify as Jews. They knew I was Catholic and they knew about Christmas.
That seemed like enough for a while, but after a few years I missed Christmas, so we shared in the holiday with friends a couple of times. Probably because I was missing my own family, our participation felt flat and staged. I eventually gave it up and focused instead on the ways I could incorporate the aspects of Christmas that were important to me into our Hanukkah celebrations. Once I included my traditional foods and made sure there was plenty of festive music during the season, the Jewish holidays really felt like my own.
Yet lately as December approaches each year, as much as I enjoy and value our Jewish holiday celebrations, I find myself astonished to be facing a variant of the December dilemma. Should we celebrate Christmas in our home? It's not that straightforward because at this point my children are definitely Jewish and I converted to Judaism about 10 years ago. But I find myself contemplating buying a tree. It isn't part of my religious practice and hasn't been for years. So why would I even consider celebrating Christmas?
Flimsy as it sounds the answer is because I grew up Catholic. I grew up with a Christmas tree and stockings. Presents under the tree. A traditional Italian Vigile (meal) on Christmas Eve. The restless anticipation of Santa's arrival. The bustle of activity and family. Christmas carols, advent calendars. Mistletoe and a wreath on the door. But more to the point, I grew up sharing the excitement of that December holiday season. I want my children to understand what that's all about.
I suppose we could affiliate with a church and experience Christmas through that community, but that feels as irreverent as celebrating such a significant Christian holiday simply for the tree and the stockings. That's not my purpose, so a couple of years ago I announced we were going to celebrate Christmas. Each of my kids took the opportunity to let me know that Jews don't celebrate Christmas, but I was determined to use the ornaments that had been sitting in a box all those years. I wanted to decorate my home. I wanted to play Christmas music at Christmas time. Now that my children were old enough not to be confused by a mixed message about their religion, I wanted them to share this part of what my life had been like when I was young.
My kids were great, treading carefully around me in the way they reserve for slightly deluded people. They sort of threw tinsel in the general direction of the tree but definitely got into hanging the ornaments. For them it was an alien ritual; they were clearly participating only out of respect for me. That might have been reason enough to get rid of the ornaments and forget Christmas but for the pleasure I took in telling them the story behind each ornament and Christmas carol. And the reaction of my oldest son when I took him with me to buy the tree.
For anyone who celebrates Christmas, picking out the tree is about as basic a step as you get. For my son it was as much a revelation as my first High Holy Day service had been for me. Here were people involved in an activity he'd never encountered. And there were definite conventions to it that he'd entirely missed. By the time he was enjoying his second glass of hot apple cider--with a cinnamon stick--and could recognize the difference between a balsam and a spruce, I could tell he was getting the point I wanted to share about Christmas. That Christmas is not just about the gifts or the tree or even about the religious significance. It's about an entire whirl of activity--from selecting the tree to finding the exact, perfect gift to choosing the wrapping paper to singing along with the music. It's about being part of a community that only exists at that precise moment.
My preference is still to share in the holiday and holiday preparations with another family who would, in turn, like to share in Hanukkah and our Hanukkah preparations. Barring that, I'll be introducing my younger children to a significant part of my childhood by celebrating our form of Christmas.
I won't know for sure until December.
For outreach professional Dawn Kepler's perspective on this article, read Don't Bring Back Christmas, by Dawn Kepler.