On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, my husband and I went off to chop down our Christmas tree, took it home, and then lugged boxes of assorted holiday decor up from our basement. We chuckled a little as we always do at the irony of a nutcracker doll packed carefully in beside our menorah, of the glass Christmas tree ornaments shaped like the Star of David, the dreidels sharing a box with the stockings. This is our reality as a mixed-faith home and one I’m proud of. But here’s the thing: Even though we can laugh a little at the multiple personalities contained within our “Holiday Decor” stash, it ruffles my feathers more than a little when someone else does.
I was raised Jewish but grew up with Christmas, a sort of homage to my father’s lapsed Christianity. I remember being very aware around this time of year that I wasn’t supposed to mention at Hebrew school that we had a Christmas tree. My parents didn’t want the family coming under scrutiny, even though, as my then-8-year-old brother put it one year when asked at temple, “The Christmas tree is a mitzvah [good deed] for my father!”
Of course, it went deeper than that. My parents wanted to share with us the joy and spirit of the Christmas season alongside our celebrations within the Jewish faith. The two religions actually share quite a bit (including the Old Testament!) but even if they were completely unrelated, for us it’s about family. When I met my now-husband, whose mother is Buddhist and late father was Jewish, he’d never had a Christmas tree before. When that time of year rolled around and I insisted we walk up Second Avenue and buy a tree, decorating it with ornaments procured at a local drugstore, he was apprehensive but agreed.
It only took one Christmas morning at my mom’s house with a stack of presents from floor to ceiling and a glorious meal afterward, shared with friends and family of all different faiths, for my then-boyfriend to fall in love with the holiday. And sure enough, after nearly seven years together and three of those married, it remains his favorite time of year despite the fact that neither of us are Christian.
The man I dated before I met my husband was different. He was a very devout Jew who not only told me that I could no longer celebrate Christmas with my family if we got married, but furthermore that his family would never accept me because of my partially Christian blood. I fought hard to save that relationship despite emotional and verbal abuse, because I was a 23-year-old editorial assistant desperate to start a family and become a real adult. He told me almost every day, and I grew to believe, that I was not only a bad Jew but hardly a Jew at all. Everything I’d known about life and love growing up in a beautifully mixed home was a lie, as he’d tell it. I was a fraud, and so was my family.
I’ll never forget what I thought would be my “last” Christmas — trimming the tree at my mom’s house with carols wafting through the stereo speakers, silent tears falling down my cheeks. If I was going to stay with that man, I would never be able to see my family at this time of year again. I felt like I was losing a part of my childhood, and most importantly turning my back on my father whose upbringing was just as valid as my mom’s. After we broke up — which was a blessing — I realized that for me, Christmas had been that mitzvah my older brother once spoke of at shul, after all. That I could respectfully celebrate the holiday and be a “good” Jew. Two months later I met my husband and we’ve been celebrating together ever since.
But before you dust off your microphone and lecture me about the reason for the season (Jesus’ birth, I respect and understand that), dig a little deeper and think about actual Christian values. What they are, what they mean. Christianity at its core is about love, acceptance, charity, community. My family does not disrespect anyone else’s faith or our own by celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah. I wish that people in general would be more open to learning about and celebrating the holidays of other people in their communities. At our synagogue, anyone is welcome. And you better believe that my Christian friends have had a blast at every Hanukkah party we’ve attended together.
I’ve definitely been on the receiving end of raised eyebrows and even some heavy criticism when my love of Christmas has come up with both Jews and Christians, but I truly couldn’t care less. To me, this time of year is all about love, joy, and giving. It’s about extending a hand to neighbors, making and eating delicious food, giving to charity, and feeling grateful for the people and blessings in our lives. Creating fun memories as a family and giving a nod to our children’s ancestors in the process is very special to us. I’m no longer ashamed to tell anyone that we celebrate both holidays. After all, nothing is as warm and lovely as a holiday dinner table where everyone is welcome — and I can tell you from experience, very few things in life can rival a Jewish grandmother’s Christmas cookies.