When December first rolls around, I am always a little “bah-humbug” at first. I never think I will have the energy to shop for all the presents, wrap all the gifts, trim the tree, bake and prepare the holiday dinners. But once we turn on the music, start lighting candles, and trimming the Christmas tree, the excitement comes back.
What’s a nice Jewish girl been doing celebrating Christmas for the last 28 years?
It’s a long story.
I was raised in a fairly conservative Jewish household. We didn’t celebrate Christmas. No tree. No stockings. No Christmas lights. No Christmas carols. No presents on Christmas Day. No Santa Claus.
But, like most Jewish families, we had Hanukkah. Eight nights of lighting candles, at least one big family dinner, singing songs… and sometimes eight presents. Although my mother didn’t believe in eight nights of presents, we usually got something on the first night and something on the last night. Usually, there was a family party or two, so we exchanged gifts with relatives on some of the other nights too. All while eating the most delicious heavy comfort food you can imagine. Usually some kind of brisket and lots of potato latkes (potato pancakes) that were deep fried and served with a sour cream and applesauce garnish. They were insanely labor intensive (as they required hand grating the potatoes and onions), but indescribably delicious. Whomever made the latkes, their house would smell like fried food for weeks afterwards. I loved them so much.
Growing up, most of my friends were Jewish too, so I didn’t really feel left out on Christmas. But I always loved Christmas movies. Christmas lights. Christmas decorations. And Christmas holiday music. I admit it... I had Christmas envy.
When I got married to my first husband (a lapsed Catholic), he was happy to convert to Judaism. His only request was to continue to celebrate Christmas too. Basically he just wanted a Christmas tree, a Christmas breakfast and presents. (He loved presents.) Having felt deprived of this delightful indulgence in colorful lights, pine-scented smells, and having another excuse for a family get-together, how could I resist?
For the next 13 years, we had a big tree, lots of lights, Christmas music, even Santa Claus came and left surprise gifts. It was a ton of fun. All of our Jewish friends would come over on Christmas day and the kids would play outside with all the new toys, and we’d have a big buffet of finger foods and baked goods.
When I married my second husband (another lapsed Catholic), he had his own family traditions with Christmas. Their family was a Christmas Eve family (meaning they had their holiday dinner and opened all of their gifts on Christmas eve). There was no “Santa Claus” or opening gifts on Christmas morning in your pajamas. It was a new tradition, but equally fun.
So here we are again. Christmas 2017. I still get excited when I open my storage boxes of ornaments and reminisce where each one came from. I have been collecting ornaments since my first christmas in 1989. Ornaments that I have purchased. Ornaments that were given to me. Ornaments that were made by my kids in school, and ornaments that were one of a kind made by local artists. I still have my favorites. My kids have theirs. I turn on classical Christmas tunes (Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra) and we trim the tree.
We still light candles on Hanukkah too. No one loves potato latkes like I do, so I don’t bother making them from scratch. (The truth is if you buy the good frozen ones, and bake them for about 5 minutes longer, they are almost as good without the mess of deep frying. There is the added bonus of not having to spend hours peeling potatoes and grating onions as well.)
I am grateful to have both traditions and to have raised my kids knowing both holidays.
So for those of you who celebrate either or both: Happy Hanukkah and/or Merry Christmas.
For those of you who don’t, I wish you a happy December. May something magical happen... whether it comes from Santa Claus, an old friend, a new friend, a new opportunity or just something delicious to eat that reminds you of your childhood.
P.S. This year’s Christmas tree.
P.P.S. The last night of Hanukkah. I was making tacos for dinner and there happened to be one ripe avocado left to make guacamole, so it made it into the picture. It was truly a holiday miracle and delicious.