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Giving up Christmas and Celebrating Ourselves

True confessions: I love Christmas--the music, the spirit, the decorations, even the fruitcake. I have a great fruitcake recipe.

When I was a child growing up in Queens, N.Y., Christmas was the time my grandmother and her sisters--all Jewish--gathered at our house. After dinner, we'd converge in the living room for our annual Christmas spoof, with songs that poked fun at various family members. It wasn't until decades later that I discovered this was a Purim activity. I didn't know from Purim. I didn't know from Hanukkah. We did festive dinners at Rosh Hashanah and Passover, minus the ceremonies. Yom Kippur was when other people fasted--and my father played golf.

Matthew Bietz's mom's fruitcake
Though she no longer makes Christmas at her house, Janet Silver Ghent knows how to make a great fruitcake. So does the mom of photographer Matthew Bietz.

At one time we had a Christmas tree. Then my parents decided it wasn't right, because we were Jewish. But after my brother was born, the tree was resurrected for a few years, only to disappear again. I remember my brother telling my mother that his stuffed animals weren't Jewish and they wanted a tree. Instead, we settled for cards on the mantel and stencils on the windows, which outsiders couldn't see, as we lived on the fifth floor. But the Christmas dinner festivities continued, along with my grandmother's so-called grab bag. One year Aunt Stella got the gift she had given my grandmother the year before.

Did I feel deprived? Absolutely. After I married a lapsed Lutheran and we bought a house, I decided we would have the biggest, fanciest fir I could find. I transformed our basement into Santa's workshop, where I made ornaments, festooning velvet balls with pearl stickpins and ribbons.

But in 1988, my first marriage ended and I gave up Christmas. It wasn't just the divorce. In fact, I had been flirting with Judaism for some time. After the split, I got serious, taking on Shabbat, Passover, even Purim. But Christmas went out the door. Not because I saw it as a religious holiday. Instead, I gave up Christmas because it was my assertion of Jewish pride.

Not wishing to deprive my children, who don't identify as Jewish, I still gave them Christmas gifts. I even took them to see "The Nutcracker" and "A Christmas Carol." But I didn't bring the holiday into our home. Some family members say I "became" Jewish, although I believe I was simply reclaiming my birthright.

When I married a Jewish man in 2000 and moved into his home, we tackled the holiday issue again. Since he had also been previously married to a non-Jewish spouse, we decided we would celebrate Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Passover, as well as Shabbat. But our kids could celebrate Christmas with our exes or their in-laws. We also let them know they were free to host Christmas gatherings in their homes, and we would gladly attend. But we weren't doing Christmas in ours.

They were not happy. After all, we lived in the house in which they had grown up, and it had always been Holiday Central. I was the Grinch.

"Can't you just have a little tree?" my husband's older daughter asked me.

"A little tree is like a little pregnant," I thought to myself. I told her that even though she didn't feel that the Christmas tree was particularly Christian, it didn't belong in a Jewish home. But I know she felt deprived, and she probably still does.

Ironically, the grandchildren think they have the best of both possible worlds: "We get to have presents on Christmas and Hanukkah," my husband's grandson, Will, told us. My own two granddaughters, who are being raised Christian, also get to celebrate a second holiday, and they love playing dreidel and amassing chocolate coins. Their family also enjoys the latkes, homemade applesauce and bagels and lox.

However, I think the grandchildren feel sorry for us. When they were toddlers, they would look around the house for the tree. My husband would show them the large bubble light menorah made of copper pipes that a Christian friend had made for him. I think it's hideous, but it certainly underlines the fact that we're different.

But Hanukkah is not Christmas, and if I don't have something special planned for Christmas Day--a movie at the synagogue, a hike, dinner with friends--I feel sad. On the other hand, I celebrate more holidays than I did before, including Shabbat, and I'm singing gorgeous Jewish music that I didn't know existed. In many ways, music was my spiritual path back to Judaism, and my husband and I were part of a group that started a Jewish choir several years ago.

Of course, Jewish isn't the only thing that makes us different. The grandkids and their parents think we're odd because we're always singing. While visiting my daughter's family recently, we happened to be eating out on a Friday night. It's their tradition to say grace before meals. Kelsey, 7, put her hands together and closed her eyes, saying, "This is the way we pray."

My daughter asked if I would like to say the blessing. Since it was Shabbat, my husband and I grabbed a roll from the breadbasket and began chanting the Motzi, the bread blessing, giving everybody a chunk of bread at the conclusion.

"Jewish people sing their prayers," Kelsey informed us.

"Yes, we often do," I responded.

"Is that why you're Jewish?" said Lindsay, 9.

Everybody laughed.

"No," I said. "We're Jewish because we were born Jewish." On the other hand, maybe she has a point.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." 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. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Yiddish for "spin," a four-sided spinning top played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. 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.) The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Hebrew for "brings forth" or "expels," the first unique or identifying word of the blessing over bread ("...brings forth bread from the earth"). Some say this blessing over bread, others recite it as a catch-all before a meal. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story.
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, former senior editor of j., is a freelance writer/editor and voice student living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at ghentwriter@gmail.com.

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