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One of the questions that I am asked as a Jew-by-choice is the inevitable one of "Do you miss Christmas?" The other question, asked by people who know I converted years after my marriage and the birth of my daughter, and that knew we had previously celebrated Christmas in our home, was "What did you do with your Christmas decorations?"
During the first years after my conversion, I would quickly change the topic and just say the Christmas decorations were in the attic. But I always felt a twinge of sadness knowing how part of my life was over, and that these beloved Christmas decorations were sitting collecting dust in the attic. Every once in a while, I would be in the attic and run across the box holding them. Sentimentalist that I am, I would slowly lift each item and reminisce, as each decoration was laden with memories. One had been given to us by neighbors the first year we moved in our house; one was a hand-made gift from my younger sister when she was a little girl; one had been given to us by my mom (may her memory be for blessing) our first year together. Lovely memories, lovely items, lovingly packed away.
One year I brought the issue to our synagogue's Outreach group (a national Reform Judaism project which helps and encourages families to make Jewish choices). My rabbi told a wonderful story of how he was in Israel during the holiday of Sukkot one year and saw many sukkot (plural of sukkah, a small wooden hut constructed during Sukkot) with lights decorating them. He spoke of the lights twinkling in the night--of families gathered for meals in their sukkot and of some even sleeping in them.
It was an interesting coincidence: my husband, daughter and I had that year decided to erect a sukkah in our backyard for the first time. Although I liked the idea, it felt very strange and foreign. Suddenly I had a thought--perhaps I would use the lights and decorations from my Christmas tree to decorate my sukkah.
The next year when Sukkot rolled around I went to work, carefully looking at the decorations that had remained upstairs for so long. The lights were still in their post-Christmas jumble, the ropes of beads--golden, wooden, and such, were there, as well as little grapevine wreaths and bird nests. I took them downstairs, gave Mark the jumbled lights to untangle, and went off to decorate. While we had a lot of Christmas decorations, many--such as candy canes, reindeer and Santas--were inappropriate for our sukkah. So, off to the nearest craft and garden shop I went, rationalizing that for so many years I had purchased decorations to make our tree look lovely, and that this year and in the future I would buy decorations to do the same for our sukkah. Laden with leaves, grape vines, gourds, pumpkins and colored corn--symbols of harvest in the Northeast--I made my way back home to finish.
That night when the sun went down we turned on the lights. My heart stood still as I saw our sukkah glowing in the backyard. Going outside, we brought our cups of tea and plates of cookies, recited the Shehecheyanu (blessing said in times of joy, thanking God to have been able to reach this season), and munched our dessert in our sukkah. Looking through the corn husks and pine branches that made our roof, I could see the stars in the autumn sky. A sense of peace enveloped me as I remembered how these very lights once wound around my December tree, and I picked out various decorations--the beads, bird nests, and such--each with a December memory. Suddenly, the strange sukkah we had constructed felt like MY sukkah.
Over the eight days of Sukkot, I would sit in the sukkah and gaze around me. A peaceful feeing wound its way around my heart, not unlike the feelings I would get in the past when I gazed at my Christmas tree, staring in the dark at all the lights. I would think about my new ancestors, wandering in the desert, dwelling in their sukkot. I wondered if the women would try to make their temporary homes comfortable and familiar for their families. I wondered if when the Israelites hurriedly packed to leave Egypt, the women took a small memento to remind them of the homes they were leaving, something to bring a small dose of comfort when going into the unknown.
Now the question arises, did my sukkah become my replacement Christmas tree? While I did use the decorations to make the sukkah seem more mine, more familiar, and while I experienced similar feelings of peace, one cannot replace the other. My sukkah had become a symbol of my Judaism--of Thanksgiving and of remembrance, but I have managed to integrate some of my past into this new identity.
Christmas memories will forever live in my heart. I am thankful that I had the memories to draw upon, that I could use them to make the unfamiliar familiar, and to help make a connection to my Jewish present.