What makes this Christmas different from all other Christmases? For the first time, I have had to explain my typically unspoken understanding that this all-encompassing holiday is not ours.
Whenever my 7-month-old daughter, Lila, and I take walks, I name and explain everything we see. In recent weeks, that has included the pretty Christmas lights adorning our neighborhood stores. My daughter is dazzled by the decorations, especially our building’s Christmas tree. It’s ironic, since Lila’s musical taste skews incredibly Jewish, from “Tree of Life” to “Oseh Shalom.” Then again, perhaps it’s logical. Lila is enthralled by shiny objects, and she’s always loved lights. She’s never seen a Christmas tree before, and it must be confusing that all trees live outside, except the one in our apartment building’s lobby. So, I do my best to explain everything in terms an infant can understand. This tree is pretty, and we can admire it, but it’s not our tradition.
Before Lila arrived, I created, and my husband approved, a mission statement for parenting. We agreed to raise a child who was happy, healthy, and proud to be Jewish. We actualize that last part by singing Jewish songs, reading Jewish storybooks, teaching Lila Hebrew words, and reciting Shabbat blessings. The Jewish people have an incredible religion and culture, as well as a rich history and intellectual tradition that includes Saul Bellow and numerous other Nobel Prize winners. There’s also the fun of being part of one big extended family. It’s worth sharing every day, but there’s no better time to highlight the joys of being Jewish than “the holiday season,” when Jews could more likely feel excluded.
I grew up largely ignoring Christmas. The New York suburb where I was raised was a quarter Jewish, and I attended day school, so my world was very Jewish (and wholesome). When my Solomon Schechter classmates and I were itching to be naughty, we belted out Christmas carols on the school bus. And while the rest of America’s families marked December 25 with their Christmas customs, we celebrated Jewish Christmas, also known as Chinese food and movie.
It wasn’t until after college, when I moved beyond the Delta Shuttle corridor, that I realized how not-Jewish the rest of America is. I was living in Austin, Texas, in December 2000, far from my Jewish family and friends. While my hometown had always had public Christmas decorations, somehow there seemed to be more in Austin. Everything seemed more, like an exponential Christmas. All of my good friends there were frum Christians, and they spent December preparing to celebrate a Christmas I’d never seen before. For them, it wasn’t about holiday shopping and plastic Santa Claus lawn ornaments. Christmas was the religious celebration of the birth of their Lord and Savior. I was happy for them on their joyous occasion, but sad at the thought of spending the day alone. I opted to fly back to New York to be with my family just before the holiday.
In recent years, I’ve been able to spend December 25 the best way. I married a man who shares my pride in being Jewish, and we always celebrate both Hanukkah and Jewish Christmas. Our emphasis, of course, is on Hanukkah — its food, its music, its miracle. And in that regard, this year will be no different.
We may joke about Lila’s fascination with the Christmas tree, which sounds almost as Jewish as the German Tannenbaum, but we’ll be sure Lila knows it’s not our ritual. We have our own customs that we choose to observe. We’re not being left out of Christmas, because we regularly rejoice in our own way — every Shabbat, every Yom Tov, and every Hanukkah.
We’ll light the hanukkiah and sing “Maoz Tzur” together. We’ll do everything as we always have, but with more explanation, so that Lila understands that this is her heritage, her holiday, and our people. And whatever other presents she may receive this year, we’ll be sure to communicate that being Jewish is the biggest gift of all.