Last week while we were riding in the car, my four-year-old son Wolfy asked, “Are we Christmas people?”
Christmas people? What are Christmas people?
This holiday season, Wolfy 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 ‘Chanukah 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.
At that moment, I caught myself thinking: December has just begun and already I’m fatigued. How will I ever get through eight nights of Chanukah and then all of Christmas? What is the point?
The next week, I tell my father all about the conversation that I had in the car with Wolfy, “And I told Wolfy that when you were growing up, you only celebrated Chanukah, 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 Chanukah 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 Chanukah 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 Chanukah 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 seven years old, I asked my parents to enroll me in Hebrew school. And when I was thirteen 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 onto 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.
As a Jewish 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 about the religion and culture nor will they 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 Chanukah and Christmas.
Christmas is everywhere and Wolfy is in love with the holiday. The glittering lights, the presents with big bows. Chanukah 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 Chanukah you eat fried potatoes. Chanukah is the underdog holiday. With all the excitement and hype surrounding Christmas, Chanukah just doesn’t stand a chance of being my four-year-old’s favorite holiday or even something he really cares about. I never realized it until I saw how Wolfy seems to think of Chanukah as a footnote. A little holiday that is sort of a prelude to the awesome, amazing Christmas.
I’m on a one-mother mission to make Chanukah exciting for my son.
We’re baking Chanukah cupcakes with special artificially-colored decorations. We are wrapping Chanukah presents in nice paper. We are letting him light his own menorah even though letting a four-year-old handle fire is terrifying. And especially, I am telling Wolfy the story of Chanukah – 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 too because like Christmas, Chanukah is also full of magic and wonder.
In all of this, we are having the best holiday season yet – filled with the joy of two incredible holidays. It is really special that our little family carries so many traditions. But most of all, I have come to realize that no matter which holiday or holidays our family celebrates, what is really important is we are passing down the true meaning of the celebration to our children: miracles, generosity, and the importance of family and tradition. The rest is just extra.