In early February of 2020, I went to the mikveh to make my conversion to Judaism official.
I lead with this because in my experience, Judaism has a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about converts that, while well-intentioned, makes my Jewish friends and acquaintances perceptibly uncomfortable when they’re trying to figure out what basic, relationship-forming questions are permissible to ask me. So I address the inevitable elephant in the room up front. This is why I don’t “look Jewish” (whatever that means), why Jewish summer camps and a birthright trip to Israel weren’t part of my upbringing, and a large part of why I have a relationship with Christmas that I would describe as…complicated.
Growing up in a Christian environment, Christmas was an aggressive seasonal force. While I enjoy twinkling lights, chilly air, and George C. Scott as much as the next person, the holiday’s relentlessness, the Christmas parades and concerts masquerading as inclusive “holiday” events, and the corporate attempts to create and sustain frenzied consumer demand for unnecessary tchotchkes are all features of the season that I could do without. Don’t even get me started on Santa. When I fell in love with Judaism and began to explore the possibility of conversion, a part of me was not sorry about downsizing the presence of Christmas in my life.
However, while falling in love with Judaism, I fell in love with something else: my husband, a non-practicing Catholic whose interest in religion was, and still is, extremely limited. But he did celebrate Christmas, and with both of our extended families celebrating it too, it looked like the holiday wasn’t going to get downsized as much as I’d expected.
I believe inclusion and respect are the top challenges for the interfaith household. Validating and holding space for holidays, traditions, and beliefs that are not your own takes energy, awareness, and discussion. Hanukkah and Christmas are particularly difficult because they overlap in a way that few other major Jewish and Christian holidays do. So, not wanting to dismiss or invalidate my husband’s traditions, I decided to re-examine Christmas to find the aspects that I genuinely enjoyed.
A year after getting married, we had a son. Although we agreed to raise him Jewishly, the fact remains that 50% of his parents are non-Jewish. This is almost never a point of contention between my husband and me, but every November and December, my question to myself is, “How do I assertively carve out space for an upcoming Jewish holiday while validating the co-occurring tradition that my son’s dad, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins enjoy?” After years of effort, I’m happy to say I think we’re starting to strike a good balance.
First, we commit every year to doing something special for all eight nights of Hanukkah. While the gifts our son enjoys getting at Christmas are fun and the decorations are truly impressive, Hanukkah is about memory-making, putting time and energy into doing good in our community, and, in the true spirit of the week, knowing together that the religious traditions in our house are special and distinct from the larger American culture’s.
Second, we make it thrilling. While I would never normally advocate for letting children play with fire, permitting our son to use the actual flame of the shamash to light our Hanukkiah (under close supervision, obviously) makes him feel important, trusted, grown up, and like he has his own special job to do.
Third, we fully embrace the uniqueness of Jewish cuisine and culinary traditions. As an athletic, health-conscious person, I want jelly donuts, fried potatoes, and milk chocolate out of my house except once a year, and that’s on Hanukkah. Reserving those treats for a special time of year makes them memorable, tied in time to the other symbols and rituals of the holiday. On Christmas Day, our lunchtime trip to our favorite Chinese restaurant is an inviolable tradition that the whole family enjoys. It helps that we usually experience these things with our Jewish community and/or invite non-Jewish family and friends along for the deliciousness.
Last, we make an effort to fully and consciously appreciate the simplicity and distinctiveness of the holiday. In our house, Hanukkah asks us to resist the hustle and pressure of the Christmas relentlessness– to instead say a blessing of gratitude and take a moment in the silent glow of our hanukkiah to appreciate the long-standing rituals that have set the Jewish community apart for thousands of years.
Christmas deserves its own celebration, and I try to do right by it. We incorporate food and traditions from my husband’s Quebecois background (meat pie and “green ketchup,” a kind of clove-y relish), we decorate a genuinely inclusive “holiday shrub” with multi-faith ornaments, and we enjoy every second of the magic and humor of Elf. We try to focus our son’s attention on the meaningful gifts he can give, rather than on what he might receive.
Our son has not asked about Santa yet. We know it’s coming, and we’re ready. But the thing is, all kids outgrow Santa eventually, and I believe our winter holiday celebrations, family history, and interfaith household offer our child something more enduring: a millennia-spanning shared history, a holiday emphasizing the bravery of nonconformity with the dominant social group, and the knowledge that in our complex world, distinct cultures and religions can not only coexist, but make our lives richer and all the more meaningful.