My father grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household. He was one of nine children, enough kids to create a baseball team! My grandparents adhered to many of the traditional rituals. Grandma kept a kosher home. And before high holiday meals, I observed her wash my grandfather’s hands ceremoniously. Grandpa was considered a Talmudic scholar, and he spent hours at his Shul (temple) praying. I was told that when their first son married a Christian woman, my grandfather burned a suit, a symbol of losing a child – and an expensive way to communicate disapproval! After two other children married non-Jews, he couldn’t afford to burn any more suits. And eventually, he seemed to accept his children’s spouses, regardless of their religion.
My father rebelled against religion altogether and declared himself an atheist. I’m sure that his parents were outraged, but nothing was ever said publicly. Nonetheless, my father identified as Jewish, just without the God-part… When my mother, also Jewish, told him she wanted a Christmas tree in our house, he protested loudly. But my mother persisted, and I guess you could say she won. Their “compromise” was to purchase a small, but extremely gaudy, pink plastic Christmas tree, covered in bright lights. To round out our Christmas ornaments, we had dozens of tiny whimsical elves strewn all over our living room, including on the mantel above our fireplace, where they upstaged a modest Chanukah menorah that sat stodgily beside them.
On each of the eight nights of Chanukah, we stood around this polyglot of holiday cheer singing “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah, come light the menorah. Let’s have a party; we’ll all dance the hora!” We felt like a happy family in those moments.
Chanukah gifts were small and practical, like cute pencils and pencil cases, or a pair of socks. But I didn’t mind because I knew they were just the opening act for Christmas morning when the “real presents” came out. These gifts were big and plentiful, and included not just what my parents gave me, but also gifts from aunts and uncles I barely knew from all over the country. My mother even hung stockings for me that were filled with small gifts and delectable treats. It was the only day of the year when I was allowed to eat candy in the morning. So it may come as no surprise that for me, Chanukah had spiritual meaning, but Christmas was a total blast!
When my father was living at “Harmony Village”, an assisted living facility in Buffalo, New York, it was all about Christmas. When you walked into the door, a robotic Santa waved at you. And all of the resident holiday parties were filled with Christmas cheer. At that point, my father was no longer protesting the holiday, and ironically, I was the one grousing that there was no menorah!
Over the years, I became weary of the commercialism of Christmas. While I can conjure up our delightful Christmas mornings, I also remember the loneliness I experienced during my childhood, watching Christmas TV programs by myself. And then I met my partner, who is not Jewish, and not particularly identified with any faith at all. But he does celebrate Christmas. And I’m fine with it.
Next week, we will travel across “the pond” to visit his family in the UK. We adore his family, but I’m well-aware that my daughter and I will be the only Jews. We will bring our menorah with us, and the British cousins will join us in songs that are upbeat but unfamiliar to them. And then we’ll devote ourselves to Christmas cheer, UK-style, which includes a grand meal, walks in the raw cold, and the sharing of stories and funny gifts. No doubt this year, we’ll roll our eyes at the equally hideous political landscapes in the UK and US.
I’m also well-aware that holidays are very hard for many people who are caring for a loved one. Lately, I have heard from a man whose wife is recovering from a stroke, from a woman whose husband is dying, and a woman whose partner’s Alzheimer’s Disease brings new surprises every day. Their holiday may not feel like a holiday at all. So as we come together with friends and/or family, let’s be grateful for what we have, and reach out to people in need of support, if we have the bandwidth to do that. Because ultimately, this holiday is a reminder that we all need a lot of love. That’s probably the best gift you can give!