When people find out I’m a Jew by Choice (otherwise known as a convert), one of the first questions I get is, “Was it hard to give up Christmas?”
The short answer is yes. Christmas seeps into your soul, and is a primary part of every Christian person’s happiest childhood memory log. Could I give up a tree in the corner of the house? Red, green, and gold presents heaped on a velvet skirt under the limbs? The adorable ornaments? Stockings hung on the chimney mantle (or, in my childhood chimneyless home, on the wood paneling)? The carols! The mistletoe! The gingerbread houses! How could I give all that up?
It was a process, and one that I wasn’t too happy about at first. I won’t get into my reasons for choosing to be a Jew, mostly because I consider spirituality deeply personal, and I by no means consider my choices to be the “true” ones or the only path. But please rest assured, before I go any further, that this choice came after years and years of soul-searching, an intensive class taught by a wonderful rabbi, prayer after prayer, symbolic dreams, and a happy heart. It had nothing to do with my husband, who happens to be a Jew. I just happened to mostly be attracted to Jewish guys, which I later found out is fairly common for those of us also attracted to Judaism.
So, I’m going to leave the religious components out of this talk, and focus on the traditions of the holidays, if you don’t mind.
My first Christmas as a Jew was incredibly difficult. All the traditions that had, at one point, been my traditions, were others’ now, and I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. Although I’d never been too vigilant about decorating my tiny New York City apartment for Christmas throughout my twenties, I suddenly found myself yearning for a tree and lights. I wanted to blast the carols throughout the apartment. I needed to make a batch of Alton Brown’s eggnog – STAT.
So I did what every good convert does – I clung onto Chanukah like a life preserver. If I couldn’t have Christmas, by God, I’d make the most out of this other holiday.
And frankly, that’s how I viewed it. As the “other” holiday, the substitute Christmas. No tree? Well, then, I’d hang some blue and white lights around the window. No stockings? That’s OK, I’d find the most beautiful menorah in town. No holly? An assortment of dreidels would have to suffice.
We ate homemade latkes with applesauce and sour cream every night. I demanded we play dreidel all eight days – despite the fact that it was just Dave and me and no kids – and we ate the chalky gelt that I picked up at the nearby drug store humorlessly. I wanted to give eight gifts, but Dave told me that was a bit extravagant for just two people, so we just gave one gift the first night. We sang the only two Chanukah songs we knew – “The Dreidel Song” and “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah” – on an endless loop, and always at my request. I was trying to get that same Christmas feeling throughout it all, and it just didn’t happen. Finally, I gave up, bought a peppermint mocha latte at Starbucks, and locked myself in the bathroom to sing “Deck the Halls” while weeping like an idiot.
As the years went on, it got easier to view Christmas as belonging to others, but my love for Chanukah was stagnant. Every year in December, I’d watch the evergreen go up, I’d hear songs about peace and joy in every store, and I’d resignedly polish our menorah and buy those tiny bags of overpriced gelt.
When Stella came along, I had a newfound desire to make Chanukah more meaningful, and I really put my back into it. We bought her eight gifts – one for each night – and the house was an explosion of Stars of David and dreidels. I plugged “Chanukah songs” into Pandora and heard every instrumental version of “The Dreidel Song” you could imagine. And while my husband and my daughter seemed delighted by my efforts, I wasn’t as pleased. I still felt incomplete. I still yearned for that Christmas feeling, and I just couldn’t conjure it up via Chanukah.
Over time, I grew to like Chanukah more and more, but it wasn’t until this year – eleven years post my conversion – that I find myself yearning for Chanukah, grateful for it, beyond happy that I’m a Jew during the Christmas season.
What changed? I stopped trying to make Chanukah into Christmas, that’s what. I started to look at Chanukah as the holiday it is – a minor one, meant to light a spark in our hearts during this dark time of year, and to reignite our pride in our Jewish heritage. It’s not as big a deal as Christmas, because it’s not our major holiday. And it doesn’t have to be. And now I absolutely love that about it.
Which doesn’t mean I don’t have fun with it. We bought a cheesy electric menorah this year, because Dave mentioned he had one as a kid and always loved it. We bought both of our kids eight gifts each, and even have theme nights (book night, chocolate night, art supply night, etc.). We plan to eat latkes most if not all the nights, and I went to a local chocolate store to buy the “good gelt” (i.e. the stuff that actually tastes like chocolate). We’ve already finished decorating our house, an effort led with seriousness and dedication by my 7 year-old, and composed mostly of hand-made crafts.
And we have more meaningful activities planned. Like going to our local nursing home to light the menorah and sing Chanukah songs with our older neighbors. (We discovered, after some work, that that are more than two Chanukah songs, and Dave can play them beautifully on his guitar.) We’ll meet up with our Jewish chosen family here for a few different parties – one at our beloved synagogue. Stella’s going to invite over her best friend, a sweet Catholic girl, to teach her about Chanukah. And every single night, when I light the shammos candle, I will say a prayer that will have great meaning to me.
It will be wonderful, fun, and festive, and it won’t be Christmas. And while I’ll always treasure my childhood memories of Christmas, I’m relieved to be released of it now.
Christmas is beautiful, and I have no ill feelings toward it. But Christmas is work and effort and it demands of most of its followers at least a month of dedication. It involves decorating and shopping and high expectations from your kids. Many people I know derive great meaning and joy from preparing for Christmas, but others can seem quite stressed and frazzled by it. As someone who’s struggled with anxiety for much of my life, it is a great relief to sit at home with some candles and fried potatoes while the rest of the country bustles around in the traffic outside.
So this year, my heart swells with love and gratitude at coming of the holiday season. The carols in the stores make me smile and fill my head with sweet memories that I’ll treasure forever. One night, we’ll pile the kids in the car to look at the gorgeously-decorated homes in our neighborhood, and will drink some hot chocolate when we return. We’ll even gather with my Christian family around my mom’s sweet tree, and watch our cousins’ faces beam with joy at the gifts we gave them.
But what I’m most looking forward to is my 2 year old son’s look of wonder when all eight candles are lit, at watching my daughter hug an elderly woman who’s missing her own grandchildren, and singing Matisyahu’s “Miracle” and really meaning it when I belt out the words: “eight nights, eight lights, and these rites keep me right, so bless me to the highest heights with your miracle.”