I am Jewish. My husband was raised Presbyterian, considers himself atheist, and until he met me, had never known a Jewish person. So it was with some trepidation and a few drinks that I told him, if he was serious about me, he would have to let me raise our possible children Jewish.
Never mind that I wasn’t positive I wanted kids in the first place, or that we’d known each other all of two weeks. Yet I was sure of two things: Dan was awesome, and I had no time to date a guy I’d never marry.
He asked me what having Jewish children would look like. I wasn’t sure. Seven years and two children later, I’m still winging it. But I had to answer the question, so I started with the one thing I was sure of.
We would not have a Christmas tree.
It’s hard for me to articulate what it means to be a Jew. It’s much easier to say what being a Jew is not. For me, being Jewish is not celebrating Christmas. As a kid, being Jewish at Christmastime meant feeling the pain of being different.
In the second grade, my well-meaning teacher handed my homework back with a sticker, a symbol of a job well done. I don’t remember what the sticker was, only that it was different than the red and green Christmas stickers that adorned my friends’ papers. I wanted a candy cane, an elf, or a Santa hat, too. My sticker was no doubt cute, but to me, it was an ugly stamp of my otherness.
I used to dread holiday season small talk. I remember being 10 years old, lying on my dentist’s mustard yellow chair for a cleaning, sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Inevitably, my friendly dentist asked the dreaded question, “What are you asking Santa for this year?” When he removed his instruments from my mouth, I replied, “Nothing.”
I did not care to elaborate, and my tone conveyed that. Above his mask, his eyes betrayed shock. After an awkward pause, my mom looked up from her magazine and explained with an apologetic smile, “We’re Jewish.”
In high school I attended an all-girls Quaker prep school. Although none of the students were Quaker, practically none were Jewish, either. Aside from being the only one in my class to miss school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, my Jewishness was a non-issue. Until the school replaced the time-honored Christmas Vespers pageant with the politically correct Lumina celebration.
I was thrilled. I wouldn’t have to sing about the birth of our lord Jesus Christ anymore. No longer would I feign excitement over a tradition I secretly loathed. I never told my classmates I was invited to be one of the few student representatives on the Lumina advisory committee. When talk at the lunch table turned to the tragic loss of the beloved ritual, I kept my mouth shut. I don’t blame 17-year-old me for prioritizing fitting in over defending my identity.
As a kid, I wanted a Christmas tree, badly. I was thrilled when a friend’s family invited me to help decorate theirs. I would daydream about what kind of tree I’d get if I were Christian (real, not fake), and how I’d decorate it (with rainbow lights, no tinsel). Even now, when we go to my in-laws for Christmas, I selfishly wish their tree were more festive.
Now that I’m an adult, I can have a tree. I can have any kind of tree I want. I can dress it up as fancy as a prom queen if I feel like it. But like I tell myself before taking a bite of my daughter’s leftover chicken nuggets, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Because for me, the presence – or absence – of a Christmas tree in my living room is about much more than home décor. It’s a public declaration of who I am and what matters to me.
I am a Jew. I am the great-granddaughter of Jews who fled Pogroms in Eastern Europe and came to this country with nothing, hoping for something better.
I have fond childhood memories of sneaking out of services with my brother and my friends for epic games of hide-and-seek spanning our entire synagogue and its grounds.
I remember breaking the Yom Kippur fast at my grandmother’s house, the dining room table covered with food: a heaping bowl of warm, fresh bagels alongside platters of lox and cream cheese, my great-aunt’s noodle kugel with Cornflake cereal topping, and my mother’s chopped liver.
I remember three generations of grandparents, great aunts, great uncles, and cousins taking turns reading the Haggadah at the Passover Seder, while my brother and I joked in whispers at the kids’ table.
I remember getting together with Jewish family friends, who were as much family as blood relatives, every Christmas Eve for Chinese food and ice cream sundaes. I remember going on a teen tour to Israel and feeling totally at home with 40 teenagers I’d never met before, an ocean away from my parents.
I also remember the deep longing I felt for a Christmas tree and a stocking full of Lip Smackers and scrunchies every December.
But if I had the chance, I wouldn’t trade that longing for the fulfillment of my childhood wishes, because the sum of all these experiences have shaped my values. I believe it’s more important to be who I am than to be like everyone else, even when it’s uncomfortable.
If I can pass that belief on to my daughters, I will have given them a greater gift than anything I could put under a Christmas tree.