I’m not even supposed to like Christmas. For crying out loud, I’m Jewish. You may have heard there’s a war on Christmas, and I’m pretty sure I’m the enemy.
Even as a kid I remember having a sort of complicated attitude toward Christmas. I remember a first grade art project around the holidays where we made cards (or something) for our parents out of construction paper, crayons, glue, glitter, and cotton balls. I knew that I was supposed to use the blue and white paper, but I remember thinking how pretty the other kidsâ€™ red, green, and white creations looked. To me, at that time of year, those colors meant “winter.”
This isn’t to say that I don’t love Chanukah. Although as an adult my family’s primary holiday is Thanksgiving, all of my childhood holiday memories are of Chanukah. Or, I guess, Passover. Or Purim. Or Rosh Hashanah or Simchat Torah or Sukkot. OK, let’s say that all of my winter holiday memories are of Chanukah.
My family did it right. Mom would fry up delicious latkes while we sang the song we learned in Sunday School: “Grate potatoes, grate potatoes, grate potatoes, and an onion, too.” (The song, while insipid, certainly helped a few years ago when my mind blanked as I was shopping for latke ingredients.) The house was littered with gelt — gold-foil wrapped chocolate coins. And not the crap you find in supermarkets, I’m talking about the good stuff, Elite brand, from Israel. We had at least 6 menorahs, one for each member of the family plus a few extras. At some point nearly every kid had made an ugly, brown, misshapen clay menorah in Sunday School, and some of these stayed in active rotation for much longer than you might expect. One of my mother’s most clever innovations, I think, was the extensive layer of aluminum foil that covered the side table in the dining room on which the menorahs sat, so four snot-nosed kids could wave lit candles around without dripping wax all over the furniture.
Chanukah is a very minor Jewish holiday. It celebrates the defeat of the Greek Assyrians, who had conquered the kingdom of Judah and defiled the Temple in Jerusalem, in a guerilla war led by the priestly (Hasmonean) family of Mattathias and especially his son Judah Macabee, the original Hebrew Hammer. Then there’s some kind of bubbe-mayse about how, after the Temple was rededicated, there was only enough consecrated oil left to burn for one night, but it lasted until some new oil could be obtained: eight nights. Hence, eight nights of candle-lighting. Chanukah is notable in that it is one of the few days in the Jewish religious calendar in which we commemorate a time someone tried to kill a bunch of Jews and didn’t actually succeed, but it is still a very minor celebration. There are much more significant holidays, and if it weren’t for the fact that Chanukah happens to fall in December, most non-Jews wouldn’t have heard of it. (How many of you have ever heard of Tisha B’av?)
But I did (and do!) love the presents. When I was a kid, every year Mom would put out a pile of presents for each kid in the living room, and we’d choose, at our discretion, some number of gifts from our pile to open each night. I often think that the true miracle of Chanukah is that that tiny pile of presents lasted for eight whole nights.
My most indelible memory of Chanukah happened when I was about 13 or 14 years old. It was the last night of Chanukah, and I’d opened my last present. Then Mom told me that she had one more present for me upstairs, and that it wasn’t down in the living room because it was “too big to wrap.” The 60 seconds between this announcement and Mom coming back down with the present were some of the happiest in my life. My mind was racing, trying to imagine what it could possibly be. The palpable envy of my incredulous siblings was perhaps the sweetest elixir of schaudenfreude I have ever tasted. For that minute I was the luckiest boy in the world.
Needless to say, I came crashing back down to earth when Mom came down the stairs carrying a canvas “director’s” chair with my school’s crest on the back. This was not, I confess, one of the images that had been dancing in my head. To this day, the phrase, “it’s a chair” still conjures a sense of trenchant disappointment.
But I loved Chanukah, and I loved being Jewish, and I never envied my friends who celebrated Christmas. (One night? Please. Mythical fat man delivering presents? How childish.) In fact, I was downright Scrooge-like. Well before it was (apparently) trendy, I was decidedly anti-Christmas. I spun up a minor huff every year at the Christmas decorations that decked the halls of my (private) school. I was in the glee club (What? Shut up!), and the highlight of our year was the Christmas concert. I drew tortured ethical lines about which songs I could sing and which I couldn’t. I scored the coveted “Five Golden Rings” solo in our popular annual rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” so that was OK, but I ostentatiously sat out “Good Christian Men Rejoice.” When someone would wish me a “Merry Christmas,” I’d scowl. I complained loudly about the Christmas carols that were ubiquitous from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.
So, the weird thing is that as I’ve gotten older and, perhaps, mellowed, I’ve really come to like Christmas. I don’t know how much of this is because I’ve been in a long-term relationship with someone who celebrates Christmas (something that, frankly, would have appalled my high school self) and how much is that first grade sense of aesthetics ripening in the fullness of time. I have found myself — almost against my will — getting into the holiday — by which of course we mean Christmas — spirit. I really like the look of a city street strung with white lights and lampposts wrapped in garlands. I like the look of candles in the windows of snow-covered houses. (Interestingly, I am still opposed to colored and/or blinking lights and to illuminated characters on lawns. My Christmas tastes, I’m embarrassed to say, are decidedly WASP-y.)
My very first Christmas with Rachel’s family was met with some trepidation, especially on her part. The year before some friends had invited us to go caroling with them, and I was decidedly surly about it. (“I don’t know any of the words,” I huffed.) So she expended a lot of emotional energy fretting about how I would fare for the weekend. Would I be overwhelmed by all the Christmas cheer? Would I secretly resent being forced to participate in a holiday that I did not ordinarily celebrate? Of course it was a perfectly lovely weekend, and my growing maturity allowed me to unwrap gifts in the presence of a tree without pitching a huge fit. There were some quiet laughs later about the fact that the Christmas lunch spread the family put out for the weekend they welcomed their daughter’s Jewish boyfriend was anchored by a big bowl of lobster salad and a giant Christmas ham.
Rachel and her family celebrate an entirely secular Christmas. You will not find a baby Jesus among their decorations, and their homes are even largely Santa-free. Honestly, this made it possible for us to combine our households and our winter celebrations. She’s enthusiastically embraced Chanukah (and even made a beyond-the-call effort to learn the candle blessings very early in our relationship), and I have come to enjoy having a tastefully lit tree in the living room. Not to mention (what with Chanukah plus Christmas at each of her parent’s house) 10 days of gifts. I personally think that our lit menorah next to our Christmas tree and our holiday iPod playlist of the Irish Tenors Christmas and Debbie Friedman’s Chanukah CD is a beautiful bit of ecumenical winter celebration and a very satisfying combination of our backgrounds and traditions.
Thatâ€™s not to say that itâ€™s not sometimes still a challenge. Society as a whole sometimes seems to define â€œJewishâ€ as â€œdoesnâ€™t celebrate Christmas,â€ and I know that Iâ€™m blurring a line that I once considered inviolable. Iâ€™m sure many of my fellow Jews would be appalled by the Christmas-ification of my life. Frankly, I still have twinges of righteous rage whenever someone seems blithely to assume that everyone celebrates Christmas. My personal war on Christmas, however, is over. It ends not in victory or in defeat, but with, I hope, a lasting peace. At least until it comes time to decide whether to tell our kids about Santa Claus.