Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas and Hanukah

Like most American Jewish kids growing up in the 50’s every year in December I was envious of my Christian friends. Hanukah just can’t compete with Christmas no matter how hard it tries. Candles, latkes, driedles and all just can’t compete with Christmas trees, decorated houses and Santa Claus. My parents did a good job of making Hanukah special but it wasn’t the same, and we knew it.

It was impossible to avoid Christmas, of course. We’d usually drive around one night and look at all the lighted houses. And yes, I’d stand in line to sit on Santa’s lap. When it was my turn and Santa asked “and what would YOU like for Christmas little girl?” I wasn’t shy at all about telling Santa “well I don’t want anything for Christmas but I’ll tell you what I want for Hanukah!” and then I’d proceed to do just that.

Christmas day was always a little strange. Everything was closed and there wasn’t any school or work, but we’d all just laze around, and maybe go to a movie later in the afternoon or something. It was weird and a little sad.

When I was in high school we moved out into St. Louis County. There weren’t as many Jewish kids at my school and the Holiday Concert had more overtly religious songs. I was in the choir and I loved the music. I just really enjoyed this time of year and was happy to have any chance at all to participate in the festivities. I know it made my parents uncomfortable to have me singing all those Christian songs but I reveled it.

Then I grew up and met Lee and fell in love and got married. Lee isn’t religious but he loves family holidays, especially Christmas. There was never any question about whether we would celebrate Christmas or not. I was excited!

I loved having my own Christmas tree, baking cookies, opening presents on Christmas day. I didn’t dwell too much on what it was I was celebrating. I just wanted to have this special holiday with my husband, and later, give my kids a bunch of great Christmas memories, Santa Claus and all.

But of course having children made this all more complicated. I wanted our children to enjoy the traditions that came from my husband’s side of the family, but I also wanted them to know about their Jewish heritage. When they were very little this wasn’t very hard. We continued to celebrate the traditions of both Christmas and Hanukah. We did the big presents for Christmas, with Santa Claus. For Hanukah we lit the candles, sang the songs and had little presents. No problem!

But as they got older I started to realize that I needed to clarify for myself, as well as for them, what these holidays meant, both to us as a family, and to the world in general. They needed to know that to Christians Christmas is a religious holiday, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. They needed to understand that while we didn’t believe that Jesus was the messiah, he was also a very important historical and philosophical figure, and by celebrating Christmas we were honoring his birthday.

I also started to think about what these holidays mean to me. I figured out that I WAS celebrating something, or maybe several somethings. I was celebrating my family. I was celebrating the longing of the human spirit for peace on earth. I was celebrating the miracle of light, shining forth on the darkest days of the year. And I was celebrating the eternal hope within us all for brighter times and better days.

Although it’s good to have this clarified for myself, it’s still not easy sometimes being part of an interfaith family. My kids are aware of the conflicts and have struggled at times to identify who they really are. I have felt the disapproval of Christians who believe that only they should celebrate Christmas, and fellow Jews that look askance at any Jew with a Christmas tree! But I guess that’s just part of being alive, isn’t it? If I lived my life worrying whether my actions met with everyone’s approval I guess I’d just have to stay home in bed. Life is too short to worry about whether others think my family is celebrating these holidays the “right” way. We celebrate them the way that is right for us, and that’s good enough for me.

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