Last week while we were riding in the car, my 4-year-old son asked, “Are we Christmas people?”
Christmas people? What are Christmas people?
This holiday season, my son has been obsessed with Christmas. At the bank, he runs to the Christmas tree grabbing my hand and pulling me along. “Look at the ornaments! See all the presents, Mommy?”
At home, The Polar Express is the book of choice at bedtime.
And when we walk downtown, he stops to exclaim over every Christmas-y thing in every window display. “A Santa Claus! And an elf! Wow!” I try to get excited along with him and also point out the menorah hovering in the back of the store window. “Yup,” he says, “A menorah. And there’s a reindeer!”
In the car, I suppress a sigh and answer his question, “Yes, we are ‘Christmas people’ but we are ‘Hanukkah people’ too.”
Then I try to explain to him about how some of his family is Jewish and some of his family is not and that some people he knows celebrate Christmas and some people celebrate Chanukah.
Our family is special because we celebrate both holidays.
It’s a big conversation, and I think my explanation of it all probably left him more confused than when we started. As we pull into the driveway, I feel like a failure.
December had just begun and already I was fatigued. How would I ever get through eight nights of Hanukkah and then all of Christmas? What is the point?
The next week, I told my father all about the conversation I had in the car with my son, “And I told Wolfy that when you were growing up, you only celebrated Hanukkah, no Christmas at all.”
“That’s not exactly true,” my father says, “When I was growing up, I loved going to see Santa and sitting on his lap. And we always went to look at the Christmas lights and hear Christmas carols. How could we not celebrate Christmas? It was all around us.” My jaw dropped. I tried to picture my father sitting on Santa’s lap and then going home to a grandmother who only spoke Yiddish and my mind pretty much exploded.
I grew up celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah because my father, the Jewish child sitting on Santa’s lap, ended up marrying my mother, a woman whose own mother played the organ in a Lutheran church. I think my parents’ marriage was probably a shock to both of their families. For people who grew up in homes with strong faiths, both my parents are pretty non-religious. In December every year, we celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas but with an emphasis on the cultural rather than religious traditions of each holiday. Instead of telling the story of the birth of Jesus or emphasizing how divine intervention helped the Jews triumph in the Hanukkah story, we focused on eating latkes and rolling out Christmas cookies. As a child, I loved both holidays.
But as I grew up, my Jewish faith began to speak to me with a stronger voice than my Christian side. When I was 7 years old, I asked my parents to enroll me in Hebrew school. And when I was 13, I had a big bat mitzvah celebration. I have never denied that half of my ancestry is not Jewish, but when people ask me about faith, I always say that I am Jewish.
Now I’m raising my own mixed family. Because I married a non-Jewish man, my children are only “one-quarter Jewish,” but I hate quantifying it that way. How can only a certain part of you be anything? No, for both me and my children, we are just a mixture of everything. It’s like the way all the ingredients come together to form a cake. We think of a cake as a cake, not a certain percentage of flour and a certain percentage of chocolate.
Of course we celebrate Christmas. For my non-Jewish husband, Christmas is his favorite holiday filled with the best memories of his own childhood. He wants to pass the magic on to his kids, and I would never deny him that. Anyway, I still like Christmas too. Like my parents, I focus on the cultural aspects of the holiday and my Scandinavian heritage. I love hanging ornaments on the Christmas tree and spending time with my family.
But as a mother, I feel it is my duty to teach my children about Jewish traditions and religion. If I neglect to do this, they probably won’t grow up with much knowledge or identity with this part of their ancestry. My baby girl isn’t old enough to understand the holidays, but my son is old enough to begin learning about why our family celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas.
Christmas is everywhere, and my son is in love with the holiday. The glittering lights, the presents with big bows. Hanukkah is always in the background. It is represented with boring blue-themed symbols and a strange-looking menorah. Christmas has bright, beautiful treats, and on Hanukkah you eat fried potatoes. Hanukkah is the underdog holiday. I never realized it until I saw how my son seems to think of Hanukkah as a footnote. A little holiday that is sort of a prelude to the big, amazing Christmas.
So, I’m on a one-mother mission to make Hanukkah exciting for my son. We’re making Hanukkah cupcakes with special artificially colored decorations. We are wrapping Hanukkah presents in nice paper. We are letting him light his own menorah even though letting a 4-year-old handle fire is terrifying. And especially, I am telling my son the story of Hanukkah: how the mean king tried to wipe out our entire people and how even though they were smaller and supposedly weaker, they rose up to defend their land and their way of life. I love telling my son the miraculous parts of the story, because like Christmas, Hanukkah is also full of magic and wonder.
In all of this, I have come to realize that no matter which holiday or holidays our family celebrates, what is really important is that we are passing down the true meaning and values of the celebration to our children: miracles, generosity, and the importance of family and tradition. The rest is just extra.