This will be my first Christmas with my new family. My husband and I have been married for a year, but up until now, we've always visited his family for Thanksgiving. This year, we're going to be with them for about a week surrounding Christmas, which also happens to be the week of Chanukah. So... Christnukah?
My husband, Bear, warned me that Christmas might be weird. "Someone might offend you by accident," he said.
The holiday season can be a little uncomfortable for me. People always wish me a merry Christmas, and then I'm not sure what to say back, since I don't celebrate it. Usually I just say, "Merry Christmas!" Sometimes I say, "Actually, I'm Jewish, but Merry Christmas!" Sometimes I sort of want to say, "Happy Chanukah!" but I never do, because that feels mean. Sometimes it's obvious that the other person isn't Christian either, and then we both kinda look at each other and then quickly walk away.
I don't like it, though, when people defend their right to wish me a Merry Christmas, even after they know I'm Jewish. They say, "Christmas is for everyone!" or "Come on, this is America, it's just a big commercial holiday that doesn't even have anything to do with religion." Christmas has everything to do with religion. It celebrates the birth of Jesus -- you guys remember him, right? Even if you're just sitting around under your evergreen tree, eating cookies and opening presents and not thinking about your soul at all, you're still celebrating a religious holiday. And I'm still not celebrating that holiday, because I have different holidays with different stories that have to do with a whole other religion.
So when Bear and I get a card that says "Merry Christmas!" I am not sure how to feel. The Merry Christmas counts for him. It lumps me in with him. It assumes that I am celebrating Christmas, too. I feel a little invisible.
"Merry Christmas, Kate!" says Bear, holding up another card that's just arrived. He starts singing, "O holy night..." He grins impishly at me. "There are SO many great Christmas songs. I think I'm gonna try to sing them all."
I roll my eyes. I laugh. I'm overanalyzing. I'm just sensitive.
Bear and I agree on most things. We see the world similarly. It makes living together easy. Sometimes I forget that I am Jewish and he is not. He isn't a Christian -- he doesn't consider himself religious or care very much about holidays. We celebrate Shabbat together on Friday nights by lighting candles, saying a blessing and sharing what we're feeling thankful for that week. Beyond that, religion doesn't really come up. I want our eventual kids to grow up Jewish, but I'm not even sure what that will mean or look like. We haven't spent too much time talking about it.
And now I am about to celebrate Christmas with his family, and it occurs to me that not talking about religion doesn't mean it isn't there. Christmas isn't just a blip. It isn't just another empty box on the calendar. It's meaningful for his family. Even if it doesn't necessarily feel like an expression of religious devotion to every one of his family members, it feels important and special. It's a time when everyone comes together, exchanges gifts, laughs and hugs. It's a time when old grievances might be awkwardly aired and old wounds might be healed or salted. In other words, it's family time, and there's a Christmas tree smack in the middle of it.
Mostly, I don't even think about being Jewish as a thing that makes me different from the majority of people. It doesn't come up a ton. I live in New York, for crying out loud. There are like four non-Jews in this part of the city, and they all have a Jewish best friend.
But occasionally I am the first Jew someone has ever met. This happened a lot when I went to Montana and Idaho on a family vacation when I was a teenager. It was pretty exciting. I felt special. I feel like I'm a good first Jew.
And occasionally, I remember that my Jewishness is a new thing for Bear's family. In a way, I'm their first Jew.
His mom is being really sweet about everything. She bought a hannukiah (that's what the Chanukah menorah is called) and some dreidels, and she asked me if maybe I'd teach the family some stuff about Chanukah. I'm no Chanukah expert (in my defense, Chanukah is actually a very minor Jewish holiday), but I'm looking forward to giving it a shot ("And then the badass Jewish warrior women guided their battle-ready space robots into formation -- making a gleaming wall of chromiliax, an impenetrable metal mined on the planet Gorfluck 5 -- and the ancient Syrian army fled in terror, crying, 'Jews are awesome and mighty! Especially Jewish girls!' No one was harmed. And that was the miracle of Chanukah...")
Talking on the phone with Bear's mother, I can hear how careful she's being. How hard she's trying to make me feel welcomed. And suddenly I think of the situation differently -- how will it feel for her, having me there? How will it feel for his whole family? How does it feel to have to be careful and uncertain about what's OK to say and what's offensive or inappropriate? How does it feel to try to make someone comfortable without making assumptions? Or to try to include someone who doesn't necessarily want to be included? How does it feel when your son brings his new Jewish wife home for Christmas?
And beyond that even, how does it feel for Bear, who will light Chanukah candles with me tonight? Who has quietly learned how to sound out Hebrew letters and can participate easily in the basic Shabbat liturgy.
Maybe this Christmas isn't about me being an outsider awkwardly trying to fit into someone else's tradition or awkwardly standing apart from it as it occurs around me. Maybe it's about all of us, trying to be a family. All of us, adjusting to each other.
When we visited Bear's very devout grandmother last year, she kept asking me if I was a Catholic. Half of his family is Catholic. I had to keep gently breaking the news to her. "No, I'm not Catholic. I'm actually Jewish."
"Oh!" she said, each time, startled, having to adjust to this information. "Jewish..." she sounded it out. She remembered that she'd known some good people who were Jews and told me about them.
"Well, we all believe in the same heaven!" she'd say, finally, delivering the verdict. "And we believe in the same God!"
I held her papery hand in both of mine and nodded. "Exactly! That's right."
We smiled at each other. We could make this work.
Of course, I didn't mention that I don't exactly believe in God. That's another thing.
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