The sun has just set as I type this, ending the last day of Hanuka this year. For the next few years, the Jewish holiday will not overlap with Christmas, as the lunar calendar jumps around.
Having my own winter festival to celebrate has buffered the Christmas season for me. I have a bad attitude about this season, and while I don’t want to be the bad guy, I just don’t want to celebrate Christmas in my own home. I have been pondering what this means a little more deeply this year.
This year is the first time it occurred to me to think about what it would be like to be Christian in parts of the world outside of Europe and North America, where festivals of lights are part of every religion, but Christianity is a minority religion. Do you celebrate Divali as a Christian (or a Jew) in India? Major Shinto holidays in Japan? I imagine Ramadan is out.
In Spain, Christmas presents come with the three wise men on January 6, and in Holland on St. Nikolas’s Eve on December 6, not necessarily with a tree. Here in Sweden, the religious aspects of Christmas seem dampened: Jultid is a season of lights, food, and family. It is a cultural celebration, with merriment scheduled literally for the darkest time of the year.
The Swedish couple we had over last Thursday for Hanuka latkes (traditional potato pancakes, fried in oil) are both Jewish, but both celebrate Jultid. The wife grew up in an old Swedish family that celebrated both Hanuka and Christmas. The husband grew up with parents who had survived the Holocaust — I’m not sure if his parents ever had a tree. But now this couple does, celebrating both Hanuka and Christmas with their kids.
Growing up, there was no question in my parents’ households that Christmas was out: My grandparents grew up Orthodox, in the Midwest and northeastern US. They gradually became less religious over time, as did my parents. As did I. But not before my dad imparted to me his allergy to Christmas trees, one he acquired from his parents growing up in the Jewish ghetto in Buffalo.
Dad had to face this during his second marriage to a Christian woman. He made the best of it, I think (you get to feed people copious amounts of food for Christmas, which is manna to a Jewish mother-type). I had to face it in my early 20s, while living in the Bay Area with two dear friends, E and ACK, who wanted to get a tree the year we shared an apartment in Oakland. We were just out of college, they both wanted a Christmas tree. I had never had one in my own home and had an immediate allergic reaction: NOT in our apartment, no no no, I could not have a tree.
And then I gleefully helped decorate it after they broke down my opposition, by explaining how important this tradition is to them both.
I thought about this sheepishly as I helped my friend E put up her family’s tree in San Francisco at the beginning of the month. She kindly refrained from retelling that story. And I felt how ridiculous it was that I, the Jewish person, got to partake — and that poor Matt should have been there to help set up the tree and decorate, and enjoy his own tradition!
People have been asking me how I celebrate Christmas, and I usually make a joke about ordering Chinese takeout. In an imported Brooklyn tradition, when I was a teenager, my mom and step-dad and I would have Chinese food and go to the movies on Christmas day, picking out seats in nearly empty movie theaters. (I understand from all the ads that going to the movies is now a more common family Christmas tradition, no matter your faith.) My stepbrother and his half-Jewish, half-Christian wife have chosen not to let any Christmas into their Jewish household. Now my dad celebrates Hanuka with his third wife, who is Jewish, but they also celebrate Christmas with some of her extended family.
Matt and I will continue to hash this out as a mixed family. I still don’t want a Christmas tree in my house, and I still worry that Matt will miss it. But we do seem to be having Christmas every other year or so with his clan. And some of his nephews get to celebrate both Hanuka and Christmas. May the mixed-up holiday traditions continue!