Can I be honest with you? No rabbis in the crowd, right?
As a whole-hearted convert to Judaism for nearly eight years, I have to confess: I’ve been missing Christmas lately. Not the religious meaning (sorry, bumper sticker people), but the secular, gift-laden family event that was Christmas morning at my house growing up. You know, when my brother and I would wake up before the crack of dawn to run downstairs to see what Santa had brought, with Mom and Dad in their robes with hastily-prepared coffee, watching us tear open presents and searching for AA batteries…
I loved getting and giving presents, but more than that, Christmas was one day of the year when my parents always seemed genuinely relaxed and happy to be together. Santa aside, there was something magical about gathering around the tree on one peaceful morning when the world was quiet and nearly everyone in our neighborhood was off work. My mom was a Lutheran and my dad was an atheist; so while Christmas Eve often involved church (sans my Dad, of course), Christmas morning was just us. We generally didn’t visit grandparents or do much else that day — we just hung around the house, playing with our new toys and enjoying each other. Through my child’s eyes, it was a glorious, hedonistic day that went on forever – and no fighting or family drama was allowed.
Hanukkah is a lovely holiday, beautiful and joyful in its own right, even though it’s less religiously significant than Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or Passover. But because it’s always at a different time in December (or November) and lasts 8 nights, it often feels more hectic and rushed to me than the Christmas mornings of my childhood. Many nights, we are trying to squeeze in the candle-lighting, dinner, a little game of dreidel, and small gifts for the kids into the 2-hour window between school/work and bedtime. When your faith’s winter holiday is a movable feast, and the world doesn’t stop for “8 Crazy Nights” the way it does on December 25th, it can be relatively hard to slow down and really appreciate it.
Now, my conversion to Judaism has rewarded me tenfold for the sacrifice of Santa Claus and stockings. And there are myriad ways for our family to enjoy Hanukkah, Christmas Day, and the whole Christmas season. We drive around and look at the lights together, sipping hot chocolate and circling the block a second time to revisit our favorites. We visit with friends, who welcome us into their Christmas celebrations with open arms and share in the lighting of the menorah with us. This year we’re having a bunch of our Jewish friends and family over for pasta on the 25th in lieu of the standard Chinese food. We take cookies to the fire station on Christmas Day, and participate as a family in a wonderful local program to provide Christmas presents to children in foster care. When our boys are a little older, we plan to start volunteering to serve the needy on Christmas, which will be the best tradition ever.
Not a bad list of traditions, and as I list them I’m reminded how blessed we really are.
There are challenges, too: like trying to help my four-year-old son respond when well-meaning strangers ask if Santa is coming to see him (which happens at least twice a week this time of year). As a mommy, that one cuts straight to my heart – I always want my boys to view their Jewish identities as a special gift, and never to feel that they are missing out because of who they are. And I admit it, part of me wants to share with them those special Christmas mornings I experienced so many years ago. Isn’t that natural as a parent? To want to give your children the best of what you had growing up?
When I’ve talked to friends about this longing for Christmas past, the inevitable answer is, “Well, can’t you just do both? Put up a tree. What would it hurt?” I’ve had a hard time answering that question, because the answer is anything but simple. On the surface, putting up a tree and letting my kids have Santa would hurt no one. It would be an easy way to assuage my feelings. In fact, many interfaith families do successfully celebrate both holidays.
But we are not an interfaith family. Almost eight years ago, I stepped into the healing waters of the mikveh and recited the sacred prayers confirming my new identity as a Jew. I love being Jewish. It has brought me comfort, joy, fellowship and a closeness to the Divine I was never able to attain through a connection with church. It fits for me, and I’m proud of the commitment I made to myself and my husband that we would raise our children with a single Jewish identity. Every family is different, but in our house, a Christmas tree would not fit with our family philosophy.
Before you go getting the idea that I live with a religious tyrant who won’t let me express my semi-Christian heritage in our house [insert laughter of everyone who’s ever met my husband here], let me say that if I decided this was absolutely important to me and I’d had a change of heart on the whole no-Christmas thing at our house, my husband would certainly try to listen with an open heart. But there’s more to it than that.
As I think about answering that question, “Why not do both?” I realize that my longing for Christmas morning is a longing for something I can never get back, even if I put up a tree and tinsel. I mentioned earlier that Christmas morning was one of the few times my parents seemed genuinely happy, but our family Christmases became tension- and crisis-filled as I approached high school, and my parents divorced my freshman year. Mom’s life became unpredictable from there, and while she did what she could to bolster the traditions when we were with her, the holiday never held the same unfettered joy in our family again. Dad kept the house and the old artificial tree, and for a few years he made a show of dragging it out and lighting it. By the time I was in college, however, he’d given up the pretense.
A lot happened in the years that followed. Between living in various cities, getting married and divorced, and losing my mom, I think it’s fair to say I never had the same Christmas twice. When I moved home to Georgia from Austin, I discovered that somewhere along the way I’d lost the handmade set of ceramic Christmas ornaments Mom painted for me while she was pregnant, and I cried for three days. I actually called my ex-husband in Texas and tried to get him to go to the local Goodwill to see if we had accidentally donated them. It was pathetic, and I still tear up when I think about those damn ornaments. I don’t think I was grieving for the ornaments (well, duh), but for my mom, and a family life that had begun deteriorating years before. Now that my grandmothers and my Dad have also died, and my brother and I have a polite but distant relationship, that whole part of my life seems shrouded in a white haze of loss.
Putting up a tree and taking the easy way out with Santa won’t bring back a family life that could have been, nor will it help my kids feel closer to the grandparents they’ve lost. I’ve been around long enough to know that things aren’t that simple. But I can tell the stories. I can create those warm feelings for my kids, and more than just once a year, by trying to slow down and be present with them. I can say “no” to some of our weekend commitments and spend more days sipping coffee with Hubs in our robes and slippers, letting our kids play unstructured and feel that their days are stretching out limitless before them. I can focus on what is meaningful and beautiful about our Jewish life together and build new traditions around that. And I can be honest with them, when they’re ready to hear it, about how hard it is to make big choices in life.
Choosing one road means leaving another behind, for better and for worse. I hope I can help my boys develop the character and courage needed to follow their authentic paths, wherever they lead, with open eyes and strong hearts.
Wishing everyone blessings and hope this season,
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M.J. Pullen is a mom of two, wife of one, and the author of three highly-rated contemporary women’s fiction books: The Marriage Pact, Regrets Only, and Baggage Check. She lives in the Atlanta, Georgia, area, where she frequently neglects the housework.
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