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Canceling Christmas

Originally published December 23, 2009. Republished December 7, 2012

"I'm canceling Christmas this year," I announced to my partner over dinner. "I've decided it's not fair if we're trying to raise a Jewish son and I'm dangling Christmas in front of him. I might reschedule it as some sort of mid-winter event — maybe in the middle of February — when I really need Christmas most, anyway."

My partner was still looking at me as if discussing rescheduling Christmas in mid-March was not perfectly rational. "You can't cancel Christmas," she said. "You love Assorted Christmas ornaments and goodiesChristmas!"

I do love Christmas. In my hall closet, there are two plastic storage bins. One, large enough to fit your average German Shepherd, is marked "Christmas"; the other, approximately bread-box size, is marked "Hanukkah."

The Christmas bin came with me to the marriage. I look forward to opening it each year: the lights, the color, the smell of pine and cinnamon, the warmth of being surrounded by some of the best family memories. The saddest day of the winter (and longest) is the day after New Year's, when it all gets packed up again for another year.

The Hanukkah box, on the other hand, contains a menorah, candles purchased on clearance the year before, assorted dreidels, some truly ancient Hanukkah gelt, suitable for only the most dire chocolate emergency, and an interesting battery-operated character named "Harvey Magila," who does a manic, stationary horah in black hat, payot and sunglasses like some demented Orthodox ZZ Top. It smells like wax.

I have never been more acutely aware of disparity than I am this year, our first year as "Interfaith Parents" versus just a plain-old "Interfaith Couple." Before, Christmas had been entirely self-indulgent, an orgy of good tidings and cheer that my Jewish partner had lovingly enabled. Suddenly, this year, every decoration took on the weight of the added burden of "meaning" through my son's eyes. I became concerned about the balancing (or lack thereof) of the two boxes and the attractiveness and interest of their contents — especially in years like last year, when the calendar was unkind and planted the two holidays in direct competition.

I remember the schoolyard debates with my Jewish friends: "We get eight nights of presents. You only get one." At first it seemed like an attractive option, but then I did the Christmas calculations: parent presents + grandparent presents + assorted other friends and family presents + two solid months of cookies and treats and parties and TV specials and music and pageants and decorations and people being in a good mood = a solid win in the "Christmas" category. It was like asking if someone wanted one dollar bill or eight nickels. In kid world, Christmas kicks Hanukkah's ass.

It's not about injecting Hanukkah with the steroids Christmas has been cruising on since the first department store opened, and it's not about calling it a "Hanukkah Bush" or stringing it with Star-of-David lights — Christmas decorations handily converted for the Jew in you.

As a child and family therapist, the never-ending mantras are of clarity and consistency. But the reality of human existence is murky and biased. The scales are never perfectly balanced, the division never 50/50, and to have that expectation is to set up for disappointment.

My job is to ensure that my son's Jewish identity is strong enough to withstand the tsunami of Christmas and still protect the flame of the menorah. It is also my job to make sure that his world is big enough for both. It's about helping my son learn who he is, partly by teaching him who I am. He is a Jewish boy with a Christian mother, just like some kids are blond kids with brown-haired mothers, or hungry kids with moms who can cook.

I do have some stuff about my religion that's kind of fun, but really there's no religion that's any better or worse than any other religion; they're just different. They all talk about the same things, the important things, like to love one another, to give thanks, to share, to forgive, to have faith. What people do in the name of religion is another story and another conversation. Thankfully, not one I need to have yet.

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) Hebrew, derived from the Greek word for "dance," a variety of dances done in a circle, popular in Israel (and the Balkans). Hebrew for "sidelock" or "sidecurls," derived from the Hebrew word "pe'eh," meaning "corner" or "side," these are locks of hair that some Orthodox boys and men refrain from cutting or shaving. Yiddish for "money," usually refers to chocolate coins given on Hanukkah (and used as bets during the dreidel game).

Johanna Hammer is a licensed clinical social worker. She lives with her wife Rebecca Rogovin and her son in Western Massachusetts.

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