Hanukkah will never be a replacement for Christmas -- and it shouldn't have to be. But can I justify celebrating Christmas while still calling myself a Jew?
I'll admit it: I love Christmas. That shouldn't be something to be ashamed of in 2012, but I am ashamed all the same. As a kid I loved Christmastime so much that I would plan for months before on how to decorate our modest New Jersey home, once even wrapping the two-floor box in a giant red bow like the Cartier store in New York City. I was ecstatic when people from all over town would comment on my achievement of ribbon and staples. But my elation was all too quickly squashed when fans soon became detractors: "But aren't you Jewish?" they would retort.
When I was born my parents decided that they would raise me as a Jew. My mother's Lutheran childhood had left a bad taste in her mouth, and she willingly agreed to a different fate for her boys, despite refusing to convert herself. My father, meanwhile, was a child of the modern American reform movement: Hebrew school on Sundays, a bar mitzvah at 13 and synagogue on High Holidays. He could think of no other life for his own sons, so that is what we had. And that life certainly didn't involve Christmas.
However, his hand was forced only six months into that life thanks to a very insistent Irish au pair named Lillian. Less Mrs. Doubtfire and more Madonna, Lillian had never made it through December without a Christmas tree. So my father caved and purchased his first decorative evergreen. My mother's home would never be without one again.
After my parents spilt, Christmas in my Mom's home only intensified. Though to much of the community she acted the part of a good Jewish mother -- temple choir, driving us to Hebrew school -- come Christmas her Christian upbringing sprang back to life. Her first year divorced, she threw an extravagant Christmas party, complete with a piano player name Cynthia who wore a red felt dress and a smear of lipstick and screeched Christmas carols from memory like a small-town choir master. This party became a family tradition for the next 20 years. Friends and relatives would gather for big spreads of food -- about the only time my working mother ever really cooked -- and joyous song by the tree, led, of course, by Cynthia, who returned each year in the same felt dress. These parties would become some of my favorite childhood memories.
It wasn't until I was in college that I first felt pangs of guilt for celebrating Christmas. Colorado College was the first place I ever met people who had never known a Jew. "How odd it must be for them," I thought, having grown up around so many Jewish families as a child. Where I was raised, even families who weren't Jewish adopted Jewish quirks and traditions so that they could fit in. But not my new friends. They were confused when I told them I would be returning home over the holidays to celebrate Christmas. "But what about Hanukkah? Aren't you Jewish?" they would snark. "Yes, but we don't celebrate Christmas that way," I replied, defensively. But the damage was done. Their words had shamed me. Though they had known no Jews before me, they were already assured I was not authentic. They wanted to meet a sad boy who had never had the pleasure to celebrate Christmas, one forced to eat Chinese food and watch movies while everyone else opened presents and ate pineapple ham.
My guilt intensified when I moved to New York. I was surprised to meet even more Jew-ignorant people here than I had at a college in the middle of Colorado. Goy who had not known Jews before their sojourn to the Big Apple were suddenly experts on what made me Jewish, as if shaming me would pardon the lack of religious diversity in their former lives. "Well, your mom isn't Jewish, so technically you aren't," they would boast, proudly repeating a line they once overheard but didn't understand. Yet instead of shrugging off their arrogance and cultural insecurities, I took their bait.
So I began to lie. I would underplay my family's Christmas routine and play up the monotony of a Jewish Dec. 25. At home I would scour at participating in once-beloved family traditions, hurting my mother, who had always loved the time she spent with her boys around the holidays. I even went so far as to leave her alone on Christmas Eve in order to spend it with my Jewish friends, who I was certain would assure any naysayers that I was indeed a Jew and certainly didn't need Christmas.
But this shame has no validity beyond my own insecurities. During my teenage years back in Montclair, my brother and I were close with a pair of Jewish kids in town, Emily and her brother Daniel -- the Silvers to our Solomons. There was no denying that they were Jews. They had no tree and no presents on Christmas morning. They belonged to the more conservative synagogue in town and spoke more Hebrew than we were forced to learn. Nevertheless, every December we four would take a secret journey up the hill to see the most extravagantly decorated homes in town -- listening to Christmas music the whole way. They, too, loved Christmas as much as we did.
Now when I think back to those wonderful nights singing "Mele Kalikimaka" outside those glowing mansions, it gives me peace. It helps me understand why so many of my Jewish friends feel this way, conflicted about a holiday that shouldn't belong to them but does. We see Christmas in America for what it is. Beyond that synthetic commercial exterior it's a time of joy and happiness, one of community and brotherhood, one of celebration and family. Hanukkah is the Fourth of July of Jewish holidays, not its Christmas, and we shouldn't have to use it as a substitute. Rather, we should honor Hanukkah for what it is while learning to love Christmas in our own ways. For me, that is taking time out of my busy schedule to shower my family and friends with love -- be they presents or sweet tidings. It still hurts when friends attempt to balk at my Jewishness this time of year, but deep down I know I can love Christmas and still call myself a Jew. Dan and Emily understood that. In fact they still talk about my giant bow to this day.