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Learning to Let Go of Christmas

Originally published December 19, 2006. Republished November 30, 2011.

"I'm always going to have a Christmas tree," I said bravely to my Jewish college boyfriend.

Fast forward 10 years. The boyfriend has long since become a husband, and the two of us, after years of struggling with infertility, finally adopted a baby girl. It occurs to us that this baby was going to have two families (birth and adoptive) and two races (African-American and Caucasian), so maybe it made sense to give her just one religion. As I was ambivalent about my Episcopalian upbringing, and felt very comfortable with my husband's religion, that religion would be Judaism.

But, I said, we'd still "do" Christmas. And we did — with a tree, visiting relatives, a huge meal and way too many gifts. We traded off being at home and going to visit my parents, but it was definitely our holiday.

When we enrolled our daughters (a baby sister had come along in the meantime) in a Jewish preschool at a Conservative synagogue, I was relieved to find we were not the only family living this double life in December. There were several families with one non-Jewish parent who celebrated Christmas and had a Christmas tree in their house. When we took the girls to a mikvah (ritual bath) to officially convert them, I was afraid we'd be questioned about this issue, but no one mentioned a word. Maybe they should have.

As we became more involved with the synagogue, I found myself becoming more interested in Judaism. I took classes, learned about the service, volunteered — to the point where some people were surprised to find out I was the non-Jewish parent, and not my husband! I even started down the path to conversion, but in December was stopped dead in my tracks.

Growing up, Christmas was our only big family holiday, the only time of the year associated with any kind of rituals or traditions. I knew that if I converted, I would have to give up some of those traditions, and it was difficult to imagine. Without Christmas, I thought, the year would be pretty drab.

But as my family became more and more Jewishly observant, our year became filled with occasions for rituals and traditions. The fall was busy with Rosh Hashanah dinners with friends and building a sukkah. We joined a havurah (group of friends to study and worship together) with whom we met regularly. We hosted or attended seders on the first two nights of Passover. I started to bake challah, and we lit candles and said the blessings every week for Shabbat.

Suddenly, December — with eight nights of Hanukkah, and getting ready for Christmas — seemed very busy. Too busy. And it felt odd for a Jewish family to be celebrating Christmas in as big a way as we did. I started to pull back, and tried to spend the holiday at my parents' house when we could, making Hanukkah the more central holiday in our home.

Finally, three years ago, I converted to Judaism. And, suddenly, the girl who had bravely declared that she would always have a Christmas tree was ready to say goodbye to the whole thing. No tree, no carols, no gifts. I was ready to just accept the holiday as an extra day off from work, and leave it at that.

"Not so fast, Mom," said my kids.

While I had been learning to let go of Christmas, my daughters had been learning to love it. As the only grandchildren in the family, they got tons of gifts from my parents and siblings. They loved decorating the tree. They assembled plates of cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer.

So here I am today, a Jewish outreach professional and wife of the synagogue president — and can you guess what my daughters' favorite holiday is? I'll give you a hint: it's in December, and it doesn't involve lighting a menorah.

And that makes me sad. My husband and I have worked so hard to give our children a rich Jewish life, with lots of friends, a wonderful community. And yet, to them, the best time of year involves that "other" holiday.

Now, my girls have pretty solid Jewish identities. Their closest friends are still the ones they met in preschool. They can recite the Shabbat blessings and the Sh'ma with ease, and they know that, as Jews, we believe Jesus was an important historical figure, not the son of God.

But I worry. It's tough to be a committed Jew in this Christian-dominated society. I feel like Christmas is a crack in the door of their Jewish identity and someday they might push that door open and walk away from Judaism altogether. When so many Jews only define their identity in terms of what they don't do — celebrate Christmas — I almost feel like doing so makes my girls a little less Jewish.

I remind myself, however, that honoring one's parents and family is an important Jewish value, too, and all those celebrations with my family drew them closer to my daughters. After all, they are Jewish children with Christian family members and will always have to balance those influences in their lives.

I just wish I had been a little less insistent on that Christmas tree.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. 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." A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. Hebrew for "fellowship," a lay-led group that meets for Shabbat or holiday prayer services, life cycle events, and/or Jewish learning or discussion. 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. Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Hebrew for "booth," a temporary hut constructed for use during the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot ("booths").
Alice Hale

Alice Hale is program associate for Building Jewish Bridges: Outreach to Interfaith Couples in Oakland, Calif. She and her husband and their two daughters live in Oakland and are members of Temple Beth Abraham, a Conservative synagogue.

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