The Jew Who Loved Christmas
It's me. Hi! I'm the problem, it's me.
I grew up “doing Christmas.” This is my first year intentionally embracing Hanukkah more than Christmas. In this week’s Shabbat Drop, I interview friends on their relationship with the day, and shed light on (ha) Hanukkah and why it’s a great holiday despite how movies depict it.
Every year since I was a child, I’ve acknowledged Christmas in some way. I don’t want to say “celebrate,” because why would I celebrate the birth of Christ? But for as long as I can remember, this Jewish writer has gotten up early and excitedly, gathered ‘round some form of a decorated tree, and exchanged gifts on December 25th. A self-proclaimed proud Jew with two fully (equally proud!) Jewish parents. How does that make sense?
It all started when my mom asked her parents if they could have a Christmas tree growing up, to which her parents said “Sure, why not?” It’s funny how traditions trickle down in families. I’m not mad about it because it makes me who I am today.
We celebrated Hanukkah growing up - in Hebrew school, I painted a yellow menorah with a thicc Star of David which my mom still uses today, so there’s evidence of a Jewish upbringing. But Christmas stole the show in the Lapides household of my youth. We had stockings strewn above the fireplace: everyone got classic red, but mine was white with dangling felt balls. We had a tree: a dinky plastic one we decorated with sparkling glass globes, plastic candy canes, and my first-grade photo. We even put out cookies and milk for Santa, and no, we didn’t forget carrots for his reindeer.
For years, my love of Christmas outweighed my love of Judaism. That changed a couple of years ago when I started attending Jewish classes and learned the true meaning of Hanukkah. Sure, in Hebrew school you learn the basics: the Greeks vs. the Maccabees (or ‘Maccababies’ if you grew up in the 90’s!), the miracle of the oil lasting for eight nights, chocolate coins.
But by studying Hanukkah in depth, I learned it’s different from all other Jewish holidays in that it’s not “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat,” but more about preserving the Jewish soul and all that it stands for. It’s risking your life for the freedom to uphold your Jewish values. Everything has meaning on Hanukkah, from your doughnuts down to the dreidel. It’s not just a fun game where you take your brother’s gelt! Jews played it to disguise illegal Torah study while hiding from the Seleucids. It goes deeper than being “Jewish Christmas.”
Besides all this history and meaning, Hanukkah is also FUN. We party for eight nights, eat artery-clogging food, and exchange gifts, though some may not agree with the commercialization of the holiday. But my love language is gift giving, so…
I always thought our people felt the need to compensate this time of year, with Matzo Ball socials, and ugly Hanukkah sweaters to match ugly Christmas sweaters. The media is often to blame - in movies, there’s always the sad Jewish kid in class who feels left out this time of year. In The Fabelmans, the family makes the point that their house is the only one on their street without any lights. Well, it just so happens that Jewish homes have the REAL light, as we continue the ancient tradition of lighting Hanukkah candles and will continue to do so as long as we are a people! Except not in the year 3031…
This year, when my cousin asked me if I could watch his dog so he could go home for Christmas, I immediately said yes. That was an intentional Jewish choice I made so I could stay in the city and celebrate Hanukkah with my Jewish community here. Now I’m going to all the parties, frying up the latkes, even going to synagogue more because my cousin lives near my shul. That said, I know plenty of Jews who love Christmas (though they don’t “celebrate” as much as I did growing up). I don’t think loving Christmas music or wearing Santa sweater diminishes their love of Judaism because they are some of the proudest Jews I know.
That said, I will still be watching Love Actually on Sunday. Best movie ever. Chag urim sameach!
As a Jew, how do you feel about Christmas?
In preparation for this piece, I talked Christmas with some Jewish friends who had various relationships with it.
Friend 1: “My immediate family celebrates Hanukkah every year, but we also spend Christmas with my mom’s extended family that isn’t Jewish. We open presents, have a big meal, sing and dance… It’s fun and festive, and I LOVE it! I’m very passionate about my Judaism, and I feel that partaking in parts of the secular world doesn’t take away from identity as a Jew.”
Friend 2: “Every year, I go home for Christmas because my parents are religious and it’s what they want since I’m their only child. It’s not ideal, and it feels weightier because this is my first Christmas since converting to Judaism, but it makes my parents happy. For now it’s fine, I kind of just have a mental wall about it, but I think it will become a serious topic of discussion once I have kids. Maybe I’ll make my own traditions someday, like play chess on Christmas.”
Friend 3: “I’ve never celebrated Christmas except for maybe one year when my non-Jewish roommate celebrated Christmas and I helped her carry the tree home. That was when I found out I was allergic to Christmas trees because I’ve never had one in my apartment before. I’m not Grinchy about Christmas but I also feel like it’s shoved down our throats. A lot of how we celebrate Hanukkah now has to do with its relation to Christmas, like decorations and presents. In my first job out of college, we had to take off the week between Christmas and New Year’s and use your own PTO for it, but they weren’t my holidays. No one at work said anything about it being Hanukkah and everyone assumes you’re driving somewhere for Christmas, but I purposefully will say, “Chinese food for me! I’m not going anywhere.” This is just another week for me. Sure, it’s quiet, less people are working, but it’s still not my holiday. There’s a break, but this break was planned because of the Christian calendar. I think someone who didn’t grow up celebrating it has a complicated relationship with it because that’s what the world revolves around. I don’t hate Christmas; it’s cheerful and the lights are nice, but it’s a reminder that we’re a minority.”
What are your Hanukkah traditions? Do anything fun/different this year?
“I was thinking this year of making an array of pancake type delicacies using different ingredients as fun toppings - as long as they sizzle in oil it works. So aside from potatoes there’s corn and zucchini fritters which could be topped with spicy jelly, feta or mashed potato waffles with chives.”
“Led a Chanukah workout! Full of dreidel spins to indicate candlestick leg lifts, Star of David jumps, temple mountain climbers, and drop it like a top squats, with reps 1-8”
“I didn’t do this purposefully, but I’m going to some sort of Hanukkah event each night this year. Not ideal for this introvert, but fun and festive!”
“For years, we’ve done 7 nights of receiving gifts (one night from one set of grandparents, one night from the other, one from parents, one from each sibling—there are 2–and one from aunts and uncles) and one night is a night of giving. For years, we did night of giving where we would take the kids to shop for a child in need who is their age. Now, our community has joined into this concept and we have one night of Chanukah where we collectively shop as a community for the most requested items at the kosher food pantry. We take a list, we take our kids and my parents and we shop together and spend whatever we would spend on gifts for those in need.”
“The past few years, my kids and I choose one charity at random to give to this time of year. I have them use some of their allowance to go toward that charity to teach them Jewish values.”