The Ghosts of Christmas Past



by Andi Rosenthal
This article was originally published on InterfaithFamily.com
In the midst of packing up the apartment where I’ve lived for the past seven years, I found them right where I knew they would be, in a box at the very back of the hall closet.

Sighing, I opened it. There they were, bells and angels, stars and glass balls, shimmering in every color of the rainbow, shining out of the depths of the cardboard darkness. My Christmas ornaments, every single one with its own story, its own memory. I picked one up–a goofy orange ceramic lobster my sister had brought from Maine–and gazed at it, remembering my final Christmas tree in 2001, the year before I converted.

ornaments.jpg“Throw them out,” said my friend Chrissy, as she folded up the clothes I would be donating to a local charity. “It’s not like you’re going to use them ever again.”

“No,” I replied, a note of stubbornness coming into my voice. “I want to keep them.”

“But why? You’re Jewish, you haven’t had a tree for years.”

“I don’t know,” I said lamely. “Maybe I’ll decorate a sukkah (wooden hut) with them someday.”

“You’re going to decorate your sukkah with a lobster (nonkosher food)?” she asked, raising her eyebrows. I didn’t answer, but I smiled as I taped up the box and put it aside, to take with me to my new home.

***
 

Last year, for an article about how the December holidays impact Interfaith families, I was asked by JTA reporter Joe Berkofsky how, as a new convert to Judaism, I would be spending the Christmas holidays with my Catholic family. I had felt honored to be interviewed, and answered Joe’s questions almost breezily. I remember telling him how easy it had been to give up my Christmas tree, and predicted that it would be a wonderful, happy challenge to celebrate “my” holiday of Hanukkah in the midst of my family’s Christmas celebrations.

What I didn’t know last year was that my little travel menorah, brought over to my parents’ house for our traditional Christmas Eve family party, would look so small and forlorn in the midst of the lights and wreaths and holly. Even though Christmas Eve coincided with the sixth night of Hanukkah, and my family joined me in the candle blessings, the menorah seemed so out of place that not even those steadfast candle flames were of any comfort. Small and forlorn was exactly how I felt. It was then that I realized, in spite of my cheery holiday prediction, something was indeed wrong.

I also didn’t know that as part of my boyfriend’s holiday traditions, he would want to watch Midnight Mass on TV that night. As a young journalist, Claude had interviewed the late John Cardinal O’Connor for one of his stories, and later that year, the Cardinal had invited him to attend Christmas Eve Mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Ever since then, Claude, though deeply proud of and committed to Judaism, had a soft spot for the Midnight Mass, with all of its pageantry and loveliness. But for me, the Mass was another reminder of everything I was not anymore.

Sitting together in the darkness of the living room, listening to the Gospel and its message of “peace on earth, goodwill towards men,” I realized that I still knew all of those ancient prayers, still knew the words to the hymns and the carols. I felt a tightness in my throat and a strange stinging in my eyes. By 12:30, I was in the bedroom reading with the door closed, so that I wouldn’t hear the music.

I also didn’t know that by Christmas morning, it would all be too much for me to handle. Any pretense of breezy holiday celebrations had faded with the headache that greeted me as I woke up. All I could think about were the years of Christmas mornings that my sister had jumped on my bed to wake me up, and how together we had raced each other down the stairs to see what Santa had brought for us. My mom and dad would already be making cups of tea in the kitchen, emerging with resigned smiles as they encountered the detritus of torn wrapping paper and frantically untied bows.

Claude and I drove to my parents’ house, where my sister, her husband, and my two small nephews were waiting for us so that we could open presents. My headache was threatening to explode into a migraine, and I couldn’t keep the tremor out of my voice as I watched my nephews re-enact the chaos that my sister and I had crazily carried out for so many years. I opened my own gifts with a heavy heart, feeling as if I was doing something wrong. I’m not supposed to be doing this, I kept thinking. I’m Jewish now. This isn’t my holiday.

A few hours later, Claude and I packed up the car with our gifts and headed out for a movie and Chinese food–we had laughingly told one another that we would celebrate Christmas the traditional Jewish way. As I pulled the car door closed, the tears started. And they didn’t stop.

I cried through two movies. I cried all through dinner. When Claude tried to comfort me, I couldn’t respond. I cried out of some mixed-up sense that everything was wrong, that I was sitting over an untouched plate of chicken with snow peas when I should have been somewhere feasting on turkey with cranberries. I cried because, for the first time, I wondered if converting was perhaps the worst thing I ever could have done to my family, because Christmas with them didn’t belong to me anymore, and it never would again. I cried because I felt stupid, because I missed having a Christmas tree, and I was afraid I had reneged on my commitment to being Jewish because I had opened presents on Christmas Day.

And I cried because this was happening to me. I had fought so hard, waited so long, wanted so much to convert to Judaism, and the day of my conversion had been one of the happiest of my life. On that sunny August afternoon, I had chanted “Sh’ma Yisrael–Hear, O Israel!” with a heart full of pride, love, and humility. I loved Judaism with every breath of my being. But I suddenly felt betrayed by my decision. I belatedly realized that even as I had joyfully converted, I had never acknowledged the loss of my Christian heritage and identity. But here it was, coming back to visit me like a ghost of Christmas past. I had never envisioned myself becoming a casualty of the December dilemma. But it had happened just the same.

***

When I traveled to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion last summer to train as a mentor for those in the process of conversion, I heard a story about a woman who, having converted to Judaism, still couldn’t bring herself to give up her Christmas tree. She had tried to keep it a secret from her rabbi, but one day, in a fit of despair, confessed to him that she had put up a tree in her house. And he answered, very gently, “Well, maybe someday you might not need it anymore.”

That’s why I am taking my Christmas ornaments with me. It’s not so much that I ever expect to have a tree again. But I know that I still need them, even if they are hidden away in a cardboard box at the back of the closet. Like the ancient, hopeful liturgy of the Midnight Mass, like the sad, sweet songs that herald the holiday season, Christmas remains a part of me still, in a way that perhaps Hanukkah will not be until I have a family of my own.

My history, however, as I seek to balance the new wonders of Jewish life against the loss of a life once celebrated according to a different calendar, is one of the special and unique things that I bring to my Jewish journey. Because for me, the sense of wonder and holiness that I always felt at Christmas is at its heart our very same hope for peace–shalom, and our same desire for the healing and renewal of the world–tikkun olam.

For most of the world, Christmas is a day of birth. But I realize that for me, it is a yahrzeit, anniversary of a death. I hope that, as with any loss, the pain will become gentler with every passing year, and that I will remember what I learned from my old life with a genuine respect and fondness for what I once was. And I hope that as my ornaments gather dust in their cardboard box, my Hanukkah candles will chase away the darkness, illuminating that small, secret place of Christmas sadness in my heart.

Author’s note: I wrote this piece for InterfaithFamily.com six years ago, and I find it to be as true for me today as it was then.  Even though the ache is somewhat less, and I am now used to living in a home in which there will never again be a Christmas tree, my ornaments remain on the closet shelf, gathering dust: a souvenir of an old identity and of holidays long ago; and perhaps, in some small way, a symbol of just how far my Jewish journey has taken me. 

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29 Responses to “The Ghosts of Christmas Past”

  1. avatar

    Andi,
    Thank you for your honesty and reflection. Your history and emotional feelings are a part of who you are – past and present.
    It is very difficult in our culture today to not react to the constant media attention to Christmas. We no longer live in exclusively ethnic/religious neighborhoods, so our support system takes a lot of work. While we can’t isolate ourselves, we wax and wane with our participation in our new faith. Look how a once minor Holiday has now taken on the largeness it has to compete with Christmas.
    It takes deep understanding to separate the components of past experiences to understand them. For converts, it wasn’t always the religious aspect but the feeling of togetherness, sharing, gift giving, decorating, music, childhood traditions of Santa Claus, etc. that filled us with a certain kind of joy. Judaism has similar components, but different. You will always have your memories, but they do fade a little with time and aging. There will always be triggers in our society and a sense of loss. Just don’t feel guilty about it.
    It took me a long time to come to grips with some of those early memories. You are not alone in your feelings. For those that were always Jewish, therefor never experienced Christmas to the depth you have, they may never understand. That is just a fact. You are entitled to your feelings! But practice in your Jewishness, will ease some of the rawness.

  2. avatar

    Andi: Thank-you for sharing this very personal and eloquent piece.
    While I don’t share these sentiments of missing Christmas, I’ll acknowledge that most converts likely do. It was easy–gleefull, even–for me to jetison all the trappings of Christmas. Christmas in my family was never divorced of its religious meaning, which is why I don’t even entertain the idea of visiting my family at Christmas. I know that’s not an option for many converts, but it works great for me. I substitute trips home on my mom’s birthday, or around Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.
    What I didn’t know last year was that my little travel menorah, brought over to my parents’ house for our traditional Christmas Eve family party, would look so small and forlorn in the midst of the lights and wreaths and holly.
    Although the issues of mourning the loss of the good things we leave behind are the significant factor here, part of the problem is making Channuka = Jewish Christmas. Popular culture certainly has done this, but converts certainly should not expect to replace Christmas with Channuka. Born Jews too, for that matter. Let’s let Channuka be the minor holiday it is and stop Christmasizing it.
    Now this I relate to: I wondered if converting was perhaps the worst thing I ever could have done to my family I don’t wonder, I know. For my family, it would be better if I were a meth-addicted prostitute rather than reject their faith. We have now come to a very civil “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about religion, but there is always a need for me to carefully measure my words with my family.
    My convert burden will always be how best perform the mitzvah of honoring my father and mother….

  3. avatar

    Andi,
    Have you considered donating your ornaments to a children’s shelter?
    Susan Ardell

  4. avatar

    Dear Andi,
    I hear you! Somewhere I, too, have a box of Christmas ornaments, including a bunch that used to belong to my grandparents (many hand-made by my grandmother).
    Next year I’ll have been Jewish for ten years. This December, I’ve been thinking again about those ornaments, and my vague plan to design a display case for them.
    In particular I’ve been thinking that I *will* get that case designed and made soon, and in future bring it out every December. Why? Because they’re mementos of my dear grandparents and of my own childhood, not chopped liver.
    Maybe ten years is long enough that this doesn’t feel like treachery. Or maybe I’m just trying not to keep putting things off. I don’t know. But I hear you.
    – Kris

  5. avatar

    Thank you so much for giving a voice & words to the nagging ache in my heart & soul that starts in August when I see the first Christmas catalog in the mailbox and progresses through the January post-Christmas sales. In our culture the Christmas frenzy is inescapable. I am comforted by your words and the knowledge that even after 15 years of conversion my feelings are not unusual.

  6. avatar

    This article spoke to me so loudly that I was in tears at my work desk. I’ve been Jewish for over 40 years, and am totally committed to Judaism, but when that time of year rolls around, I’m still feeling slightly guilty about enjoying Christmas carols, loving the smell of pine boughs in all the stores, and wanting to decorate my house and make cookies. (I have sublimated by collecting snow people and dreidls!) One convert friend of mine said that what we could do is to buy ornaments and decorations and go trim a tree at a senior citizens’ facility or a homeless shelter. A good idea, but doesn’t rid the soul of that nagging pull on the heartstrings.
    That said, these are all cultural longings, not religious ones. I’m not sure that anyone who has dedicated their lives to Judaism believes that Jesus was G-d’s son, and was born in a manger in Bethlehem. So what pulls us are the decorations, smells, customs, etc. It would help, of course, if Chanukkah wasn’t perceived as the “Jewish Christmas”, but I’m not sure that will go away soon.
    As Andi said, “Christmas is at its heart our very same hope for peace–shalom, and our same desire for the healing and renewal of the world–tikkun olam.” And that’s what I focus on most at this season.
    Thank you, Andi, and all the other commentors, for letting me know I’m not alone.
    Carol

  7. avatar

    This was an amazing article, and I thank you so much for sharing it. I’m still in the process of my own conversion, and this will be my third Chanukah. Even though my conversion is not yet completed, I do relate to many things you say. It was just this year that I donated the last of my holiday decorations to charity, except for one wreath done in blue and white that I hang on my door. This is an uncomfortable time of year, because like you I feel that tension between what has become a past life and the life that I am moving into now. It’s a comfort to me to know that these feelings are not unique.

  8. avatar

    I was born Jewish, but greww up in Dubuque, Iowa. I could relate to all the nostalgia, I love the Christmas carols, decorating a tree, which I did for many years with my Christian friends. It doesn’t make me any less Jewish. I am a product of the Holocaust, been very cative in Jewish causes, but I still love the Xmas season!

  9. avatar
    Marnie Foster-Marks Reply December 12, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    Andi, as usual, your feelings are beautifully expressed, and I understand so well. I also have some old ornaments, and the personalized needlepoint Christmas stockings my step-mother made for each child, which we all cherish, but don’t necessarily know what to do with.
    In reading the comments to this article, I was a little disappointed that so far only fellow converts have responded. I think this awkwardness that Jews-by-choice feel about Christmas is shared by Jews-by-birth as well, but perhaps not as often acknowledged or expressed.
    I know that in my extended family of Jewish step-parents and in-laws, their non-observance/agnosticism led them to have their own Christmas trees during my husband’s and my childhoods, and I knew many Jewish families in my mid-western youth who did the same – arguing that Christmas had become just an American holiday, like Thanksgiving, and no longer represented anything religious. I would love to hear from other Jews who were raised in this way but are now more observant about how they react to the national onslaught of Christmas and all its trappings, and the compromises or rationalizations they make or don’t make in order to join in the celebration in some way, or to hold themselves completely apart. I think for many people it is not clear-cut, and they feel their way though, just like converts, perhaps with similar feelings of guilt or longing.
    I have found many Jews at our temple who happily donate their time to sing Christmas carols, or serve Christmas dinner, for social service agencies. While I don’t know any practicing Jew in New York who has a Christmas tree (except perhaps my mother-in-law, at times), people have wreaths, people do stockings, people make a special dinner on the 24th or 25th of December, and go to plenty of “holiday” parties at work.
    Is it harder to give up something you’ve had, when you see it all around you, or to never have had it?

  10. avatar

    Hi Andi!
    What a beautiful piece. I think you hit it right on the head – the idea that a person’s past is still part of him/her. It’s not something that just goes away. It’s always part of what makes us who we are today. Even if it’s not a question of Christian/Jewish, we all have “history.” Stuff that we don’t forget. It’s what makes us human.
    So, your reference to Yahrzeit seems totally apt. I think of Kaddish as a prayer of remembrance. So it feels appropriate to remember all of the parts of ourselves as well as parts that are history. And Christmas seems as good a day as any!!!!

  11. avatar

    This was a wonderful article. Mazel Tov, Andi, I think the conflict you feel marks you as a “true Jew”….after all, 2 Jews 3 opinions–always conflict!
    I share your attachment to my beautiful Christmas decorations. They languish, carefully packed, in my garage. I am attached to them for their beauty or quirkiness & cannot rid myself of the joy I had in displaying them. Because I was of a Jewish heart from birth I never participated willingly in Christmas…I have no conflict about leaving the holiday behind, only sadness at losing the symbols that I carefully collected over many years.
    Now as a Nana of non-Jewish (and also non-religion of any type) grandchildren I work hard to keep Chanukah separate from Christmas. My one concession is they have Chanukah Harry stockings that are hung for them on Xmas Eve. This allows my husband & I to be a part of their Xmas but in a Jewish way.
    Each year we host a Borscht Bash during Chanukah, we invite friends & family of all religions & backgrounds. Our menorahs are lit, the food is warm & the love shared even warmer. On that night I revel in the simplicity & beauty of Chanukah decorations….a small compensation for not hanging that cute Little Red Haired Boy ornament I’ve had since childhood.
    Happy Chanukah to all the posters & readers. It is wonderful to know we are not alone in our sense of something missing.

  12. avatar

    What a beautifully written memoir! The author is too intelligent a person not to know that Hanukkah and Christmas should not be equated. Hanukkah is so unimportant in Judaism that it isn’t even mentioned in the Torah. Only in modern times when Jews became part of the general population has it become ‘necessary’ for Hanukkah to be made into a ‘big deal’ for the sake of the children (who, understandably, felt deprived when surrounded by the trappings and gifting of Christmas.
    The author should enjoy Christmas with her family, and she shouldn’t try to ‘do’ Hanukkah as her December holiday. It’s really unfortunate when the two holidays come together on the calendar as they do this year; comparisons are inevitable and they do no one any good.

  13. avatar

    I was born Jewish, but my parents had us hang stockings on Xmas eve, and filled them with little stuff (bubble soap, etc.), which we opened Xmas morning (Chanukah was for the big presents). I spent one whole summer reading our family bible looking for the story of Jesus, and never found it. My husband had a much less conflicted upbringing — no Xmas celebration at all — but he goes around singing Xmas carols all season, and I cringe. My son (no Xmas celebration at our house) plays off the contrast with his roommates/friends — last year he snuck dreidels into his roommate’s stocking each night. And he started a “tradition” with his friends of dressing up as multiple Santas and haunting Wal-Mart’s parking lot. I have a friend who has been Jewish for years, and she and her family have collected a massive set of Chanukah decorations, including blue and white tinsel, stars, lights shaped like dreidels, you name it. Her view is that the only thing she misses about Xmas is the decorations, and why should Christians have all the fun? I don’t think this turns Chanukah into an “equal” holiday, but does recognize the secular “value” –such as it is — of the holiday spirit at this time of year.

  14. avatar

    Dear Andi,
    You’re article was heartfelt, real and so very relatable. December is a challenge for so many of us, myself included. I converted to Judaism 10 years ago, and it has been a gradual process of letting go. Time is a good helper that way. I finally found that I didn’t need my blue stockings anymore:) I am able now to acknowledge that Chanukkah is a minor holiday and despite the temptation, is not parallel to Christmas; it’s just hard because Christmas is all around and everywhere, and part of my past (which makes up who I am). As a family, we dedicate December to larger social action endeavors-helping others, which always feels good and provides a nice distraction. Intellectually, it helps me to focus on the bounty of Jewish Holidays to come, on the ones that I have yet to celebrate, and especially that we get to celebrate Shabbat each week. Prayer and Jewish community help me spiritually. And it is always reassuring you aren’t alone in the December challenge!

  15. avatar

    Joyce, Hanuka is not mentioned in the Bible because it came later, not because it is unimportant. In fact a number of Rabbis have commented on the fact that it has long been one of the most important holidays for American Jews. It is a holiday when the Jews fought for religious freedom against powerful forces who wanted to control their religion. That belief in freedom of religion was a major motivation for coming to America from early colonial times as exemplified by our Pilgrim fathers and by the first large group of Dutch Jews that fled the Inquisition in what is now Brazil over 350 years ago. A number of Spanish settlers coming to the New World were secretly Jewish, forced to convert to Catholicism, and still under suspicion and threat of torture or death who were getting as far away from the Inquisition as they could. Anyway, this was a country founded by dissenters and protestants (Christian and Jewish) who so valued religious freedom that we were the first nation to put it in the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.
    Hanuka is also a great celebration here because it comes at the darkest time of year as a festival of light, a time to lift our spirits with lights and decorations on our homes, parties and gift giving. As a kid, it was just plain fun. No sad or serious side to it. Eight special days of presents, songs, candy, potato pancakes, and other special foods. Everyone was always eager to light the menorah, which got brighter and more colorful each night, sing Rock of Ages and open a present.
    We have always enjoyed joining with our Christian friends and relatives at this time of year as we celebrate both holidays, Christmas and Hanuka, sharing in each other’s happiness. We join in each other’s celebrations as guests, and can come home to our own holiday celebration.
    Having Hanuka to celebrate each December does keep Jews from feeling left out when our neighbors and friends are celebrating Christmas, especially the kids.

  16. avatar

    Thank you M.B. for presenting the substantive importance of Chanukah and for acknowledging that this is the time of year for celebrating both Chanukah and Christmas with friends and relatives of both faiths.
    When I converted, my Rabbi pointed out that my family’s first interest will be to retain my participation in the family. My mother, now 80 years old, prepares Christmas for 5 children, 7 grandchildren + spouses, and 12 greatgrandchildren. As long as my mother remains living, I will be with her for this holiday. As a child and young adult, I shared the responsibility of tree decorating with my mother. As the product of a brady bunch (both my parents came to their marriage with prior children), every sibling departed for other parents after only a few hours at our house. Our house would empty from 35 people down to three in a flash. I was there for my mother. My nieces and nephews were my age and had a minimum of 5 houses each to visit. I stayed in the one house. I spent three days soaking and lighting a tree before we decorated. After I grew up, I scheduled my college break and year’s vacation around coming home to prepare, with my mom, for the holiday. I came back from Paris. I came back from Kazakhstan. I took one law school exam early to fly in from Seattle. So, as I converted, it never crossed my mind that I would terminate celebrating Christmas.
    My parents would support me if I chose not to visit on Christmas; however, it would cause unnecessary sadness. While I might be able to perform some yarzheit to say goodbye, why should she? It was not her choice that I convert. I would deprive her of her daughter and granddaughter for no other purpose other than to save myself from feeling the discomfort of this not being my holiday. I asked that they make some compromises so that I don’t feel it is all or nothing and consequently they agreed to put away their nativity scene. I also take my daughter out of the room during prayer said in Jesus’ name. Other than my father’s prayer, nothing else is religious. It is strictly Christmas in all its Montgomery Ward origins.
    I find is easier to avoid the heartbreak described in the above posts. I thus visit my parents and continue to put up a tree in my home as well. To do otherwise would be depriving myself of any activity I’ve grown to love merely to please those who cannot understand. I would never sincerely feel that having a Christmas tree interferes with my relationship to Judaism or to G-d. Sharing the holiday with Christians is the hard part for me. Havign my own tree has posed no discomfort. In order to honor my parents, I accept the discomfort that I feel about the holiday no longer belonging to me. I know I am visiting someone else’s holiday.
    My daughter attends a Modern Orthodox school and we just don’t talk about what we are both really enjoying. The school is inclusive of Reform and Conservative. I had to give this tree a lot of thought. I concluded that Chanukah has its own purpose and beauty and should not have to compete with Christmas so we don’t have a Chanukah bush. We are Jews who enjoy our Christmas tree. I don’t wish to jetison what continues to have strong sentimental and cultural value. That sadness is not a burden that I want placed upon me.
    What I want from my family is just acknowledgement that we are Jewish. My daughter certainly identifies herself as Jewish.

  17. avatar

    Andi, as a fellow convert, let me add my voice to the chorus of people who found your article to be on point. While it has been five years since I converted, my older children still remember having a Christmas tree. Even now, the tree trimmings — many from deceased relatives and my childhood — are still safely tucked away in our basement. I still enjoy the Christmas carols and feeling of warmth, family, friendship and caring. But I also believe that the secular Christmas many of us have recalled so fondly “is at its heart our very same hope for peace–shalom, and our same desire for the healing and renewal of the world–tikkun olam.” I try to share this sentiment with my family, Jewish and Christian, each year. Thank you for putting into words what so many of us feel each year. Chag Chanukah Sameach!

  18. avatar

    I found the tone of Andi’s article interesting because I think that the sadness and bittersweet associations (regarding Christmas) she has are shared by many non-religious “Christian” adults. Christmas for grown-ups without children is not the Christmas we remember from our childhoods. For me, and perhaps for many, it is largely an occasion to reflect on loss, on aging, on estrangement, on greed. This all happens within an atmosphere of mandated and enforced “good cheer”. I, as a 10 year convert am glad that I have a reason to skip and replacement for the tired, over-commercialized pablum of Christmas that stopped working as a meaningful event for my family-of-origin years ago.
    I am so thankful to have Jewish holidays that feel completely my own and not laden with bad family baggage. I delight in our decked out sukkah, filled with food and friends. I dream of whacked-out Purim costumes and loaded mishloach manot. I even enjoy the weeks of Passover preparation (which you can make even more arduous than X-mas shopping if you really miss penance.) Hey, Hannukkah is fine too. We light it up every night. We give a Christmas’ worth of toys to our kids. And we drive around and enjoy all those other pretty lights.

  19. avatar

    It took me 21 years to get rid of my Christmas decorations- well, most of them. My daughter, who did not convert with me, lost everything in a house fire. I recently mailed her 2 boxes of decorations to start her new set.
    My one concession to the season – I drive through town one December night to look at al lthe pretty decorated homes. I used to take my 80+ year old friend and honorary Jewish mother and we both enjoyed the outing.

  20. avatar

    Thank you for your article, Andi; I had no idea I was in such good and plentiful company!
    When I converted 38 years ago—whole-heartedly and with a sense of coming home where I belonged—I was happy to leave the fuss and excess of That December Holiday behind… but I asked my husband if we could umm, well, have a Christmas tree, and he agreed. Six months later, I knew I could not bring one into our Jewish home and never regretted that decision. My grandmother lived across the street, however, so our family enjoyed her tree and the holiday at a slight remove, and eventually we were pretty much responsible for putting it up trimming it. We also drove around the neighborhood on Christmas Eve and enjoyed the pretty lights. (Gran kinda kept waiting for me to come to my senses and return to the Methodist fold; my father died before I could know much of what he thought of my conversion, and my mother was relieved that at least I wasn’t a pagan.)
    Mother died this past January, and although I recently gave away many of her decorations with nary a twinge, I kept two small boxes of ornaments from my childhood trees and, indeed, from her own, which I cannot bring myself to toss out, or sell, or give away. I suppose I should pass them along to be appreciated by assorted cousins, but not this year, anyhow. It’s possible those boxes will sit on a closet shelf, gathering dust and perhaps an annual vaguely wistful and puzzled sigh, until some time down the road when my children will make the decision for me.

  21. avatar

    For most interfaith families, recognizing, observing and celebrating the different faiths of all parties involved (parents, grand-parents and other family members) can be a challenging if not daunting task. There appears to be no single formula or recipe to integrate the different religious backgrounds contributed by the spouses of an interfaith couple. A lot however depends on how the basis of this integration was initially negotiated and then executed. If one faith wins over the other through intimidation, leading to the capitulation or withdrawal of the other spouse – whether through conversion or a negation and shelving of all faith attributes of the other spouse; this will inevitably lead to life-long resentment further exacerbated by the extended family’s input of the “destitute” spouse. All holidays celebrated with pomp and circumstance have a way of exposing these sometimes deep-rooted feelings; making it so much more difficult for the destitute spouse to feel “complete, loved and accepted” during these festive times.
    The only pre-nuptial clause our family chose before marriage; as what we then considered a recipe if not a condition for a viable integration of our two respective faiths was: raise the kids in one faith (we agreed they would be raised as Jews), keep our respective faiths and foremost, maintain, respect and celebrate all aspects related to our two faiths. We have done this from day one and it has worked beyond our wildest expectations. Our kids never got confused because we never were. They both embraced Judaism, were bat and bar-mitzvah and continue today to feel very comfortable about their parents and related family members observing different religions. There is no competition in our household between Hanukkah and Christmas. Both events are creatively and all heartedly celebrated as evidenced by the beautifully lit and decorated Christmas tree already parading in our home and waiting for the Menorah’s grand appearance. My father is probably turning himself daily in his grave at the mere thought/vision of this outrageous anathema but then, he came from a East European family with lots of prejudices amplified by having been continuously subjected to virulent anti-Semitism and bigotry. My mother was a far more enlightened, practical and forgiving person; greatly believing in the happiness and completeness people thrive for. Once she saw we were happy, she was happy and fully embraced our union of two very different faiths and family backgrounds; further anchoring our family’s “interfaithness”. If two people engage on the challenging path of an interfaith union, they have to decide from day one if and how they want their two distinct faiths to be represented, observed and celebrated. Not addressing these issues from the get go or forcing the other spouse into relinquishing his or her faith can only lead to long lasting and toxic resentment particularly painful this time of the year.

  22. avatar

    A friend on our Reform temple’s outreach/interfaith committee we both belong to sent me this dialogue. To say I am confused and waiver between experiencing intense or no emotions is an understatement. My longterm love and I had a Jewish Wedding and CT Civil union may 31st of this year. We have been together since 1979,with our first commitment ceremony being in 1982 by a Unitarian Minister. I was Irish Catholic and no Rabbi would perform a Interfaith gay ceremony in Atlanta. Eva my wife is a child of Holocaust Survivors, one being a conservative cantor.
    I converted this year before our civil union/Jewish marriage ceremony.
    I feel happy sad angry irritable resentful overjoyed and mostly confused. We have always celebrated both holidays. This year, not so much. Low key Christmas with my extended family in NewYork 8 Days of Chanukah as we do every year I miss Christmas very much I am sad and angry about us never having a Christmas Tree or decorations in our home again.Yet I very much want to be a Good Jew and think I am happy I converted
    I feel loss and will never throw away our Christmas decorations
    I feel guilty about many of my feelings and feel like I’ve let my large extended family of origin down. At the same time I feel like a very bad ungrateful Jew by Choice. I feel like a wanderer(bedlam?) with no Holiday home this year.
    Thank You so much for providing a Forum .
    Elizabeth Sleepless in Hartford…..

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    As someone born to Jewish parents and raised in an affirmatively Jewish home, I was taught to respect Christmas as our neighbors’ sacred religious holiday.
    Maybe that’s why I note a common thread in the emotionally moving posts from those who have given up Christmas in their lives, and in their minds, but not in their hearts.
    The common thread deals with the accoutrements of the holiday — the tree, the ornaments, the family togetherness, the festivity that surrounds the occasion. In all the heartfelt stories that have been shared, I don’t recall reading of any anguish over the essence of the Christmas story itself. In fact, it hardly appears in the comments, except in a reference to a banished nativity scene. (This is not to imply that that anguish isn’t felt, only that it is not expressed.)
    My ex-wife’s Jewish family always observed the Christmas season with a tree and gifts, and with the attitude that the holiday had become secularized and that they could celebrate an American occasion with no “religious” overtones. Presumably on the same basis, the Standard Club in Chicago (the elite Jewish downtown social club) had a tree in its lobby, and a gala Christmas Eve party. I felt (and feel) that dismissing the religious parts of the holiday was disrespectful to Christians.
    But if born Jews could have a secular Christmas, might we be asking too much of those who come to Judaism later in life to give up the holiday’s secular trappings? I’m a little surprised to find myself even asking such a question — but I’m inclined to find it more palatable than decorating the house with blue and white lights and a Chanukah bush. Or might it be that those who have expressed themselves so poignantly deepen their Judaism by reminding themselves each December of what they have sacrificed?

  24. avatar

    To my mind, the ultimate secular Christmas celebration is in Japan, where less than 10% of the population is Christian. The stores and restaurants are decorated with Christmas trees, Santa Claus and elves, reindeer, and the like . It seemed like an absolute frenzy of gift giving by people, almost all of whom are not Christian. There is a lot of criticism by religious figures in the U.S. about commercializing Christmas, but they haven’t seen anything like the Japanese version.

  25. avatar

    Andi –
    I read your article with interest, sadness and some reflection. It caught me off guard as I was reflecting on something else altogether. Yet, I felt compelled to comment.
    My wife is not Jewish and in this point in time has no thoughts of converting. We have two pre-Bar Mitzvah boys and intended even before children to raise them Jewish. We are both very active our temple and go to services often.
    Yet we do have a Christmas tree, we do celebrate that part of my wife’s religion, and that of her family. The kids are delighted by the presents and Chanukah does pale in comparison – (even with latkes) – her family does engage with us in Chanukah ritual and tradition too when they visit or when we visit them.
    I was drawn though to a phrase that you used in the article that she uses too. That Christmas is ‘her’ holiday.
    I don’t think of Chanukah as ‘my’ holiday. I think of it is a Jewish holiday. I struggle to think of ownership of Christmas in the same way as I find I can’t ‘own’ Chanukah as mine. It is a cultural and religious activity and ritual, not one that is owned – and the ownership has me puzzled and perhaps even troubled.
    Neither you or my wife will ever lose Christmas – the meaning and spirit of what it is – still is – whether you believe in it, celebrate it or not.
    At the same time – you morn the loss of Christmas. Bill Bridges in his book Managing Transitions talk a lot about the stages of transitions in our lives and he focus first on the morning stage – that before one can move on to/through any of the transition it is important to morn and recognize the loss – don’t forget your boyfriend lot it too, and he lost your having Christmas – maybe that is big for him to – to see your pain and recognize the love you have for him.
    I suggest morning it – say Kaddish – maybe even as a Yarzeit – every year – morn your loss – and then the los becomes part of you and your Judiasm and Chanukah embraces your ability to manage your own transition – to own your own transition..
    I hope you find peace in it.

  26. avatar

    I also come from an interfaith background, my parents are Jamaicans my mother is Jewish and my father was a baptist but he does not follow too well. regardless of one,s background if the holidays clashed my mom would have a manurah near the Christmas tree although I was not too fund of the mixed holidays but I learned that people are differant and we could learn from one another instead of being ignorant. It,s not you fault you keep leaning on the past it,s what you knew you can mix the two holidays or if you choose it,s up to you but you should,nt feel guilty because it how you grew up your parents were not Jewish so you only can go by what you were taught.
    I learn and understood both faiths but as a child I learn Judaism but when it came to learn about Christianity, I had rebelled I felt this was too much outside interferance I told my Gentile teacher leave me alone stop bothering me go bother someone else I did,t even want her friendship it took me some years before I would embrace someone outside of my faith.
    Happpy Chanukah keep you chin up don,t feel bad our doors are open to those who seek peace among us.

  27. avatar

    It is interesting to me (and OF COURSE, I understand the history behind it) of the hyper “you must choose….Christmas or Chanukah” split sentiment among Jews, as well as converts…while this doesn’t exist for St. Valentine’s Day. Let me write that a bit more correctly…”SAINT Valentine’s Day.” As in, Roman Catholic…as in, Christian. My same Jewish female friends who go into a frenzy over Xmas decor at the local school and malls will turn around and threaten certain death of their boyfriends/fiancees/husbands if a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner and presents aren’t lined up…or have NO PROBLEM getting good and tipsy on SAINT Patrick’s Day (wearing green & shamrocks and the whole nine).
    I know it’s a bit controversial, but there IS a big difference between Jesus (which is Christian) and a tree with ornaments, lights, and presents (which is of pagan origin). I wish converts didn’t feel the struggle as much or as harshly…or that it’s some litmus test of their dedication to the Jewish faith. Just my thoughts. No mean to offend…

  28. avatar

    Andi– I converted in 2001 at Chanukah time, so right before Christmas. For me, it was no problem to get rid of Christmas, since I never enjoyed the pressure of that holiday…the retail extravaganza, the frenzy of decorating, wrapping, sending cards, cleaning, cooking, and the enforced jollity. It’s a shame Chanukah bumps into Christmas, because they are nothing alike. I love the low-key nature of Chanukah, of marking sacred time and celebrating survival in simple ways. BTW…I studied in the Sh’liach Kehilah program at HUC in Cincinnati. :-)

  29. avatar

    Thank you for writing this. It helped me. My brother has converted and I am the Christian sister. I struggle with very similar feelings every year. I miss my brother. I respect his beliefs, but I miss him and his kids. Unlike you, he doesn’t come at all on Christmas, Easter of into a church for weddings or funerals. Which has been very hard for me and has taken me a long time to get to the point of acceptance. In some ways it is like a death. I try to appreciate our moments together, but I still miss him on those days. Thank you, this helped.

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