Illustration by Lior Zaltzman
When a grown woman and her seventy-something mother engage in yearly debates about the existence of Santa, I think we can agree: there’s a problem. Of course, my mother believes the problem is mine, while I tag her as the source of the annual angst. But who’s telling this story?
My mother, a bookish only child, grew up yearning for a house full of kids and a big, old-fashioned Christmas, like the ones Louisa May Alcott wrote about. My father, who had ditched his nominal Judaism by the time he married my mom, was willing to comply with her yuletide agenda.
And so began my mother’s strictly secular, Euro-inspired holiday extravaganza. It started early in December each year, with the cookie baking. Buttery Swedish stars; Viennese crescents, rolled warm in vanilla-scented powdered sugar; gingerbread men; Swiss chocolate crisps; linzer cookies, each with its shiny pocket of raspberry jam. Over a three-week period, with her three children as floury assistants, my mother rolled out as many as fifteen different varieties at our Formica kitchen table, carefully packing the finished batches between layers of waxed paper in tins to be stowed in the basement freezer. By my mother’s decree, the cookies would emerge for the first time on Christmas Eve; sampling them before that date was verboten.
Later in the month, we adorned the house with simple pine cone decorations (no tacky plastic Santas in my mother’s home), and we kids fashioned homemade gifts to stash in secret hiding places. The holiday rituals continued with the tree selection (December 20, not a day earlier) and, on the evening of the 23rd, the decoration: while classical music played softly on WQXR, we took out the ornaments while my mother related the story behind every wooden Waldorf gnome, vintage glass ball, or lumpy, pre-school-made button string. The next night, we ate fondue in front of the fireplace, dunking warm pieces of baguette into the melted Gruyere, before hanging our stockings. Finally, there was the ceremonial, dramatic reading of A Visit From St. Nicholas (that’s The Night Before Christmas for you non-literary sticklers).
Every year around Christmas, I see a schism among Jews. There are those of us with Christmas envy who want to join in and embrace it, and then there are those like me, the Scrooges. The ones who say, “Hey guys, this holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus. Not my messiah. Not my religion. Not my holiday.”
I don’t want to write a humbug-filled post on the day before Christmas directed at those who legitimately celebrate. I respect the fact that for Christians, particularly those of you who are secularly-inclined, this is your only major celebration. In fact, we Jews are kind of better off in this department. We get Hanukkah and Passover and the High Holidays, multiple nights of each. You do Easter, sometimes, but let’s face it: this is kind of your day. It’s the day that magically turns the most skeptical, rational, hard-headed of you Christian folk into gooey wreath-loving, eggnog-snarfing cornballs celebrating in joyous harmony. Okay, I say, mid-gag: enjoy it. See you on the other side.
Calling it “the most wonderful time of the year” may be a bit of a stretch, but the Christmas season certainly has more to offer Jews than Chinese food.
I don’t mean the old secular standbys of non-Jesus-y carols, egg nog, or It’s a Wonderful Life, either. In fact, the season’s non-stop carol soundtrack makes me want to dash through the snow all the way to my silent house. Ditto for Santa, the mad shopping rush, and even, to an extent, the tree (needles get everywhere and it’s a ton of work).
I grew up having fairly traditional Christmas celebrations with the non-Jewish relatives on my father’s side of the family. I thought they were fun as a child, but as a secular Jewish adult, I feel no obligation to continue any but my absolute favorite traditions. Having done them all, I feel confident in sending Santa right back to the North Pole… but I’ll keep the feelings of good cheer.
Secular Jews can enjoy a freedom more delicious than figgy pudding: embracing whatever elements of the season they choose and enjoying them in a non-religious way. Here are my top ten yuletide activities:
Until my kids starting loosing their teeth, I considered myself a Jew without any Christmas influences. Sure, I’ve always given and received Hanukkah gifts, which one could argue is the most blatant Christmas influence of all. But I’ve draw the line when it comes to buying Christmas-inspired blue tinsel, blue and white lights, and other Christmas decorations in Hanukkah disguise.
My husband and I teach our kids to respect Christmas and all the traditions of other faiths, but we’ve been careful to create their Jewish identities from the holidays and customs we do follow rather than what is not ours. Before those dang lost teeth, for example, I took pride in knowing we stress the significance of the story of Hanukkah without inflating the holiday’s importance. I was self-congratulatory about our sukkah and the fact that we celebrate Shavuot and all the holidays. I felt assured that Shabbat happens in our home every week, both on Fridays nights and on Saturdays. We were so full of positive Jewish action here that I assumed we had no trace of trappings of Christmas.
Enter the Tooth Fairy.
“Our Tooth Fairy is a lot like Santa Claus,” I recently heard my daughter, Rebecca, say to my oldest son, Sam, who at 9-years-old has stopped believing in the Tooth Fairy. We still leave him letters and money to keep up appearances for his siblings, and Sam has been a good sport about his end of the gig, penning notes about why he should get a later bedtime and a higher allowance or whatever grievance he’d like to negotiate with the powers that be.
“She’s not like Santa Claus,” I said, interrupting Sam and Rebecca’s conversation. “First of all, the Tooth Fairy is a woman. Second, she flies with wings, not reindeer.” Case closed, as far as I was concerned.
Rebecca wasn’t finished. “But you’re always telling us she knows if we’re naughty or nice.”
Sam nodded. Apparently he had received this message too.
I knew that I had been optimizing the Tooth Fairy to encourage the best behavior possible, but I had never intended to usurp the Santa Claus mythology, to borrow “naughty or nice,” to that end.
Sam ran to his room to find his pile of letters from the Tooth Fairy, intending to prove that the connection between Santa and the Tooth Fairy was strong. He handed me the letter he had received earlier in the school year.
For some, Susan Katz Miller’s new book “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family” (Beacon Press) is an inspiring testament to inclusive religious identity. For others, it sparks debate about what it means to be Jewish, what it means to be Christian, and if it’s possible to be both. But however it’s read, it’s a provocative and heartfelt analysis of the role of religion and heritage in contemporary family life.
The daughter of a Protestant mother and a Jewish father, Katz Miller was raised in Reform Judaism. She and her Episcopalian husband chose to raise their children in the inclusive community at the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, DC. She’s written about her family’s journey for the Huffington Post, The New York Times, at her blog On Being Both and for many other publications.
Forward contributor Jessie Szalay caught up with Susan Katz Miller while she was on book tour.
Throughout high school, college and my early twenties, I exchanged holiday cards with my friends every year. Christians got Christmas cards, Jews got Hanukkah cards, and Christians-slash-Jews got semi-humorous cards about celebrating two holidays at once. I never thought to not send cards; that was just what well-behaved girls did, like wearing slips under skirts.
And then, at some point, the exchanges stopped. I can’t identify exactly when it was, but there must have been a November when I walked past a Papyrus store and, for the first time, for some reason, did not go inside. Simultaneously, it seemed, neither a result of my behavior nor the cause of it, I stopped receiving cards, too.
I think in part it was because the further from childhood my friends and I got, Christmas grew in importance while Hanukkah returned to its rightful place as a minor holiday. Now that we were grown-ups, the Christmas-celebrators had to figure out how to fit live trees into their apartments and purchase grand and often difficult-to-source presents for each member of their extended families. The non-Christmas-celebrators got to look on in bemusement and eat latkes.
December is a complicated time to be a Jew in America. I annually find that once the holiday season hits full swing, all the Christmas gushing, tree-trimming, “what do you want this year?” asking and red and green everything makes me a little… bah humbug. I start getting more sympathetic to Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge than an Occupy-friendly writer should. But I’m not strictly Scroogish: I frequently vacillate over just how strongly I want to signal my nonparticipation in Christmas. Do I want to say an emphatic “Happy holidays” back to the presumptuous “Merry Christmases,” because I’m in a defiant mood? Usually. Conversely, do I say “Merry Christmas” back to peoples’ gentle “Happy Holidays” if I’m feeling conciliated and ready to grant joy to others in exchange for their acknowledgement of me? Or do I just smile and act aloof about the whole thing overall?
I want it on the record that Christmas is not my tradition or holiday. I get grumpy when the seasonal aisle is all red, but I also laugh at the excesses of those blue, star-of-David displays. I don’t want people making the same kind of fuss over Hanukkah that they do over Christmas; that makes me feel dishonest about a minor holiday. While I dream of my dad’s latkes and enjoy lighting the menorah, I can’t pretend that Hanukkah for us is as huge and insane as Christmas is to our non-Jewish friends. It isn’t. You give each other diamonds and huge toys, at least according to the thousands of commercials I see on TV. We give each other gloves and books. You squeal over fruitcakes and puddings; we say “pass the applesauce” and kvetch about work the next day. (You want to make a giant fuss and give me time off for Passover? Go for it.)
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.
Dear Susan Katz Miller:
Most of the points you make in your recent HuffPo piece, “8 Reasons My Interfaith Family Celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas,” make so little sense, from where I sit as a Jewish mother, that I feel compelled to respond. I am aware that by doing so I am wading into the roiling waters of touchy issues around intermarriage and the choices interfaith families make.
1). You write that you see “no theological conflict between Judaism and acknowledging the birth of a Jewish spiritual seeker who stood up for the poor and oppressed and changed the course of history (that would be Jesus).”
Perhaps you ought to brush up on some of what distinguishes Christianity from Judaism. Where to begin? All of mainstream Judaism says that there is a conflict between Judaism and accepting Jesus as the redeemer. Jesus and his disciples departed from Judaism so radically, in their rejection of Judaism’s basic tenets, that they birthed an entire new religion. How does that not count as a theological conflict?
Today is Christmas. As someone who is in the process of converting to Judaism, — and blogging about it here — this is the first Christmas that I won’t be celebrating. Since just after Halloween — when the Christmas decorations started appearing all over stores, and when the Christmas music began playing everywhere from Duane Reade to Barney’s — I’ve been “in training” for how to mark the holiday as a Jew.
Two years ago was the first time in my New York life that I picked a fresh Christmas tree from a seller on the street. I was living with roommates on the Upper West Side and my Jewish partner amused me by patiently waiting for me to select the perfect tree, barter with the seller, and lug it home, over our shoulders. She watched as my roommates and I acted like small children with twinkles in our eyes as we decorated the tree with white lights and carefully selected ornaments. When we were finished, we admired our handy work with glasses of wine in hand. I casually asked her if she’d had a tree growing up; she had not. Why would she? She’s Jewish.
If I’d known that that tree would have been my last tree I would’ve taken more pictures of it. Instead I thought nothing of it as I took it down a few weeks later.
A post-Hanukkah, pre-Christmas epiphany has guided me to a new understanding about Jews and gentiles: While we both love a deal, there’s a difference in how we snag it.
I arrived at this inter-religious realization at the tailend of this holiday shopping season, when newspaper circulars, emailed promotions and Facebook ads tell us to buy, buy, buy. As if we actually needed any instruction in that department. Sales promotions attempt to take the pain out of holiday spending with a promise of free merchandise — stuff we really want but really don’t need — if only we first jump through a number of hurdles.
I was ready to jump through those hurdles for three free pairs of socks offered by an outdoorsy retailer. And yes, I said socks.