From a Jew who likes Christmas
Wishing you a happy Hanukkah, a merry Christmas, and a happy Holidays!
Hanukkah and Christmas are perfectly synced up this year, at least according to my definition, which is when the last night of Hanukkah falls exactly on Christmas. Or is it when Christmas falls on the last day on Hanukkah? Who knows, I just made this up and haven’t gathered any official data, yet. All I know is that there’s something that feels nice when the two holidays line up like this. Growing up it seemed like they were pretty rarely as in sync as they are this year, which also had its perks. In my parents’ house we’d often first get eight days of celebrating Hanukkah, although nights 1-7 were mostly sitting around a table with dreidels (the spinny little tops), gelt (chocolate coins wrapped in foil), and some small presents, with a few bigger presents reserved for the last night. Then, usually after all of that, we’d go to my grandma’s farm for Christmas and get a whole ‘nother celebration and a different set of gifts from that side of the family. After the holidays my brother and I would come back to our little Jewish school as two of, if not the only two kids to have done a Christmas eve dinner and a morning gathered around a Christmas tree—instead of eating Chinese food and having a quiet day watching movies and hanging out on the 25th.
I know a bunch of wonderful people who grew up feeling pulled between two worlds, a lot of them with one foot in the Jewish community and the other in a non-Jewish community because of where and how I grew up, although as I’ve gotten older I’ve befriended people straddling countless combinations of different worlds. For me, there was definitely an element of discomfort in the Christian world. Not because of religious difference really, but rather because of a vast range of often subtle but sometimes blatant cultural differences. My nuclear family was and is Jewish, because my mother converted, and brought me along when I was six months old. And we grew up surrounded by a Jewish community that practiced the religion in a range of different ways and with varying levels of intensity, but with an almost universal commitment to what you might call “cultural Judaism” at a minimum. For me, cultural Judaism is hard to summarize, but I sometimes half-jokingly call it a strong commitment to eating bagels several times a week. More seriously, people like my grandparents didn’t practice Judaism as religion in my lifetime, but had an unwavering knowledge that they were of their Jewish community and heritage and that it was a large part of their very essence. Their Judaism wasn’t a question, in some part because they grew up in a time when they weren’t allowed to forget it, and in larger part because this fact was held close to their core and held close by almost every friend, neighbor, and family member in their lives. It was of them and of their community, and they were of it.
On the other hand, my Mom’s family are—said with lots of love—quintessential WASPs. After spending a few minutes around the older generations especially, you’d be forgiven for thinking that some of them might proudly trace their ancestors back to the Mayflower. Needless to say, there was a bit of culture confusion (not quite shock) as a child in going from being surrounded almost exclusively by a Jewish community most of the year to these brief Christmas excursions, plus the times we left the bubble for Easter and Thanksgiving. These three occasions were the main times we interacted with that side of the family, because they lived a state away and we just couldn’t see them as often as the Jewish side of the family. And yet, despite the unfamiliarity, or the feelings of distance I sometimes felt, I loved Christmas. As I’ve grown up, and my grandma whose house and farm were always the center of the festivities on that side of the family grew older and passed away, and as cousins have married and moved, my family’s Christmas routine first changed and then dissolved completely. So now I find myself being a Jew who misses Christmas.
I think I enjoyed our Christmas celebrations so much for a bunch of reasons, some obvious and some a little less obvious. On the surface there was the fun of getting another round of presents, of eating a great meal, and of little family traditions and rituals like wearing these silly, colorful paper crowns at Christmas Eve dinner. On a deeper level there was this element of being normal, or feeling normal, meaning I felt briefly like a normal American kid for that three-day window or so, which sat a little strangely with feeling a little like an outsider amongst the Christians, but the feeling of getting a glimpse into normal “American-ness” was there nonetheless. Growing up in a Jewish community there was always a knowledge sitting in the back of my head that we were still outsiders to some degree. And so, when we gathered around a Christmas tree, that little sense of insider-ness poked through, elusive and enticing, a feeling of “even thought we might not quite be normal Americans we still have access to this ritual and to almost being part of the majority” via that side of our family. Of course as a kid these thoughts were vague, and probably more felt than articulated, but they were certainly floating around inside. It’s funny to me, now that I can zoom out a little and put some pieces together, to know that when my Dad was growing up my grandpa sometimes put up a Christmas tree, because those of us who practice cultural and even religious Judaism have sometimes gone to great lengths to fit in to this overly Christian nation. As a kid I learned about Jews changing their names generations back in order to get jobs, or to try to move into neighborhoods that wanted to keep us out, and although I was born significantly after the worst of all that, I think, I still chuckle a little now when I think about being a Jew who misses our old family dinner on Christmas eve.
Today I don’t care much about fitting into American-ness, because of a strange confluence of realizing my position grants me significant access to it, seeing antisemitism rise and realizing I’ll never fully be a part-of in the eyes of many, and simply not having it as a goal or priority of mine. Instead today I miss Christmas simply because of the beauties and joys of family gatherings and rituals. Not only does that part of the family not come together in the same way anymore, but Covid meant I didn’t have any sort of family holiday gathering the past two years. This year I write to you very gratefully on a train up to see family, and tomorrow we (just the Jews this time) will have a little get-together for the last night of Hanukkah. We’ll probably spin some dreidels, we’ll definitely exchange a few gifts, and we might make latkes (the verdict is still out for reasons to complex for this short essay). What we’ll definitely do is joke around and eat and spend time enjoying each others company. I know I said I’d write this week about the worship of billionaires and wealth, and there’s certainly a strand of that to be seen in how we approach the holiday season in this country, a big strand, but when I sat down to start writing this piece something a little different came out. And honestly when I posted about what I’d write next I frankly forgot, or rather didn’t have in the forefront of my mind, that Christmas was coming up so fast, but now with the holiday clearly on my mind it just didn’t feel like the time to rant about our golden calves and misguided worships. Conversely, you might say it’s the perfect time, and I’d respect that, but instead this week and this day I just want to focus on wishing for you a nice or even wonderful time with family, a time to set aside work if you’re able to, to set aside everything that stresses you out if possible, and to focus on that which makes life beautiful, if you can.
For me, reflecting fondly on Christmases past made me nostalgic and grateful, and I hope I was able to share a little of that with you today even as I meandered down more complicated paths as well. I know I’ll struggle this week to put my phone down and be fully present with my family, but I’ll try. And after a few days I know I might find them pushing a few buttons I had forgotten were there, and that they’re not even trying to push, and I know for others it can be a significantly harder time of year for countless different reasons, but I’m going to try to enjoy this little window into some part of what life is all about for me: gathering with loved ones, breaking bread, reading and relaxing and rejuvenating a little. Then, come the New Year, it’ll be back to unlearning and learning and building and hard work. But for now, just wishing you a joyous and slow and relaxing holiday season. May your gatherings and rituals make you feel at home wherever you are, and may you know that you are loved. - Josh
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(And sorry for any typos today, I cut editing short to go get a corned beef at the Jewish deli with the fam. Keeping this funky Jewish Christmas and last night of Hanukkah going!)