Santa Clause is coming to town... but not my house.

I love this time of year. I love the smell of the pine needles from the tree sellers as we walk down NYC streets. I love when homes in our suburban neighborhood become lit with glistening Christmas trees and twinkling outdoor lights trim the edges of the roofs. Big blow-up snowmen stand in the large front yards and colorful wreaths don the front doors. Holiday music is played round the clock on the radio, in stores and at cocktail gathering at our friends' homes. Christmas sweaters, red velvet dresses and candy cane socks are pulled from closets and worn to school. Kids talk about letters to Santa they are writing, cookies they are baking to leave beside the fire place where he will fall and stockings they are hanging for him to stuff. It's exciting. It feels special.

I love this time of year but this is also a difficult time of year for me. It's the time when Hannah begins her questions surrounding why she's "different". Why we don't have a tree. Why our house is darker than our neighbor's. Why Santa doesn't visit us. Why we don't celebrate Christmas. Of course I've explained that we're Jewish and Jewish people celebrate different holidays. One isn't better than the other, just different, I've told her.

But it brings me back. Back to when I was little and the only other Jewish person I really knew at school was my brother. And I wanted a Christmas tree and lights in each window and a wreath on our door. I wanted a family day where we sat around and pulled out old ornaments and placed them excitedly on the tree. I wanted to join the conversation with my friends about what Santa had left me under the tree. But I couldn't. Because I WAS different. It was nice that I was invited by all my friends to help decorate THEIR trees (everyone needs a token Jewish person in their life to help with these projects!) but really, I wanted my own. I didn't want people feeling sorry for me that I didn't celebrate what they did. My dad had laid down the "law" that we could not have any decorations resembling a Christmas decoration in our house. No candles in the windows, no "Chanukah Bush", no mistletoe or holly on the door. I didn't get it. I just wanted our house to look pretty. I wanted to participate in the beauty of this holiday. But he just kept saying, "We are Jewish and all of that, is for Christmas."

Now it's MY family. MY house. I can make the rules as I see fit as far as how we participate in the holiday season. And I'm conflicted. Where should I draw the line so that we aren't the "dark house" on the block but so that we uphold Jewish traditions? What symbols during the Christmas holiday are religious and which are just traditional for the "holidays"? I think I've decided that candles in each window are beautiful during the winter season, when there is snow on the ground and a fire in the fireplace, regardless of whether it's Christmas or not. I enjoy Christmas music and I will play it as we sit in the living room in front of the fire reading and playing family games. Hannah and Luke can have their pictures taken with Santa at the mall because it's cute and they can believe he "exists" but he won't come to our house. But, I will not have a tree, a wreath, or mistletoe in our entryway. The kids will not have stockings hung by the fireplace and I will not wish them a Merry Christmas on December 25 because, well, we don't celebrate it.

I have friends, even relatives, who are Jewish yet celebrate Christmas because it's the "fun" holiday and they don't want their kids to feel left out. It's another excuse for a party. Something for their kids to fall in love with and look forward to each year. Santa comes to their house, they have a Christmas tree and stockings hung on the fireplace. I think all that separates them from their actual Christian friends is attending midnight mass at church on Christmas Eve. I try not to judge them but I feel like it's a cop out and makes it difficult for the rest of us who try to keep Chanukah sacred and special for our kids. I'm proud of being Jewish, I want my kids to have the same pride and instead of feeling different, I want them to feel special. I work hard at making Chanukah special by lighting the menorah each night, singing the prayers, playing the traditional games and exchanging gifts for 8 nights.

I remember when I was little shopping in stores around Christmas and having EVERYONE wish me a Merry Christmas and saying straight back, "I don't celebrate Christmas". Because I didn't and to me it was like someone wishing me a Happy Birthday when it wasn't my birthday. I wasn't being rude or bratty, I was just stating the truth. But it makes people uncomfortable. They feel the need to apologize and back peddle. As an adult, I just say "Thank You" because it's easier. Simpler. Expected. I remember around last Christmas overhearing Hannah's gymnastics coach asking everyone what they got from Santa and hearing Hannah pipe up that he doesn't come to our house because she's Jewish. The coach went on to say, "Awwww... that's too bad, I'm sorry." I wanted to jump through the glass window of the observation room and strangle her. Because it's nothing to be sorry about. She's Jewish. She doesn't just have mean parents who refuse to let her in on the more popular holiday. Or does she? I do think that's how some people feel. Hannah's orthopedic surgeon who helped heal her broken leg last year told me, "Don't worry, you'll cave" when I told him we don't celebrate Christmas. I'll cave? It seems it's expected to be just another negotiating point. Like when she'll get her ears pierced or when I'll buy her a cell phone.

Part of the problem is that the school Hannah is in has few Jewish kids. The elementary school she'll be entering next year has a much higher ratio which should make things easier for her. And for me. I grew up in a very Catholic town. I grew used to being the minority. But I don't want that for her. I don't want her to always feel she needs to "explain". I want her to feel her home is filled with holiday warmth no matter what decorations can be seen by passers-by on the street. I want all of the smells, sounds and sights that are true for this time of year to trigger a love for Chanukah and all that comes with it.

If any of my readers are Jewish and celebrate Christmas, I'd love to hear your views. I don't mean to be judgmental, I just am confused by it. I'm also interested in hearing what other Jewish families do as far as decorations in their homes during the holidays.


Aidan Donnelley Rowley said...

I'm not Jewish, but I had somewhat of the opposite experience. I grew up going to a school that was, at the time, about 80% Jewish. All of my close friends were Jewish and they all had these fun and lavish Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. I am not exaggerating when I say I memorized good parts of my friends' Torah portions. I got used to this and also very much enjoyed my own Christmas celebrations, but often felt like I was in the minority. I remember feeling genuinely shocked when I went off to college and I was actually in the majority.

I do not have any sage words of how to raise your kids, but I think you should just follow your instincts. I can tell from this post and from others that you are a very thoughtful person and mother and you will arrive at an approach that reflects your values and instincts.

Happy Sunday!

Jen said...

Becca, thank you for this. I'm going to share it with a Jewish co-worker, who has a 2-year-old and is anticipating the "Santa issue" this year. I hope that your kids are living in a time that is at least slightly more aware of different religions and traditions. But I am still amazed at how much I hear "Merry Christmas." I meant for this to make much more sense, but it's late. And, if you can believe it, my kids made their Xmas lists today. Bike gloves. And "a new friend." (Sweet kids, no?)

Anonymous said...

Hanukkah can be a really fun holiday. Are there local Hanukkah parties you can take your family to? Even better why not host a Hanukkah party for Hannah's school friends so she can share her holiday with them? I bet she would be so proud to show them how she celebrates Hanukkah at home.

PS; aren't you glad there aren't Hanukkah versions of those really bad Christmas sweaters?

Lindsey said...

My experience was much like Aidan's. Most of my friends were Jewish & I grew up wishing I was. I thought (and still think) those traditions & holidays are marvelous and mystical, and have immense respect for your religion.I think your plan sounds great. "different families make different choices" is a mantra of mine now - and this isn't about choice so much as the fact that your family celebrates a different way of honoring God, has a different system of belief. Hannah will get it! And good for you for making thoughtful decisions about what feels okay to you and what first. That's a great legacy for her.

Complicated Mama said...

I am not Jewish, but I can understand the frustration from your post.

While I do believe Christmas has lost its religious meaning almost all together--- which is kind of sad in my opinion....I do not think you are being "the mean mom" not letting Hannah in on the fun holiday, and when she gets a little older- she will appreciate what you are doing by keeping true to your holiday tradition. Remember like you said, you were once in Hannah's shoes... and you've come to appreciate it all.

Found you through SITS and love the blog- I just subscribed.

Headless Mom said...

I'm Christian and the watering down of Christmas drives me nuts. The people that celebrate it just because it's all Santa, reindeer, and the "fun" holiday kinda ruin it for those of us who believe strongly that we are celebrating the birth of a Savior. I'm NOT trying to get on a soap box here, just stating where I'm coming from. (Seriously. I think you know me well enough to know that I'm NOT bashing.)(Right?)

That said, I think you should boldly celebrate Chanukah. If you want to decorate your house there are certainly options in the stores now. Actually, several homes in our neighborhood get decked out with blue and white lights and a Star of David.

I have a didn't mention your husband or his opinion of all of this. What's his take? Is he Jewish? Did his family do things like yours or did they do something different?

Liz said...

My dearest friend (the one I mentioned recently on my "Hear Me Growl" post)is Jewish. I remember one time a student of ours gave her a cross for Christmas. When she explained to her student that she was Jewish and did not celebrate Christmas, his response (he was a VERY bright 5th grader, so this was not just a cute little kid not knowing) was: "Not at all? Not even a little bit? Like, you don't even put up a wreath?" He was appalled. We still laugh about it...we'll go back and forth often, as in: "Hey, aren't you gonna have Christmas dinner? No? No?!? Not even an appetizer? Not even a little shrimp cocktail???"

TKW said...

"Awwww, that's too bad....I'm sorry." WTF?! Oh my gosh, I would have wanted to chew that teacher a new one! What a thing to say!?!

I think you are handling the "Christmas Conundrum" quite well. I think your kids will appreciate both their faith and your willingness to remain open to some things.

I think if you fill your house with laughter and good food and special traditions, that's the thing they will remember.

Kristen said...

Becca, once again you raise an issue that's very much on my mind. Husband is Jewish and I am not. So far we haven't made any conscious choices about how we will raise our boys. (No bris, no baptism.) But now Big Boy is starting to ask questions about Santa and is intrigued by a manger he saw at a friend's house. ("Who is that baby, Mommy?") Our uneasy solution for the time being is to travel over the holidays - to celebrate Chanukah and Christmas with our respective families later this month. And, at home, we decorate seasonally, but not holiday-specifically (snowmen and snowflakes rather than a creche set or Santa). I know we have to come up with a more sophisticated solution once the boys get older. So keep me posted on what you decide. :)

Anonymous said...

as you know, i am not a particularly jewish jew. that said, having my kids in jewish nursery school has been really fun because i see how much they enjoy what they are learning, things i probably would neglect. i actually love it and i think it is so cute when ev sings jewish songs that were my favorite when i was growing up. will hannah go to hebrew school? i think having the boys in the jewish school kind of keeps my mind more focused with the traditions, the foods of the holidays, the stories about the holidays and it is really fun reliving it with them. next year when reid goes to regular kindergarten, i know i will be forced to step it up but hopefully i will be as enthusiastic about it then without the school influence, as i am now. i think the kids themselves really love it (of course it helps that everyone there is jewish and there is no talk of santa...)

Twincerely,Olga said...

HI! great post! Iw as raised in a half Jewish/ half Christian home! Soemtimes we celebrated Christmas and sometimes we celebrated Hannukah!It was confusing.I don't think you shoule celebrate Christmas.I liked the one reader who suggested a Hannukah party!@ That would be cool! I am now a b/a/ Christian.I am glad I found our blog!

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