Celebrating Both: A Jew-by-Choice Reflects on the "December Dilemma"
The holly and tinsel are once more in store windows. Lights are strung on houses all down the lane. Carolers are warming up their voices. Those jingle bells are jingling again. It’s beginning to look a lot like... Hanukkah?
The anecdotes are classic. Our friends and neighbors gear up for the celebration of the year. The weather chills, and many Americans retreat inside for a season of family and gift-giving. Meanwhile, the Jewish community soldiers on, making Hanukkah as bright and joyful as we can. Some of us spend Christmas Day in Chinese restaurants and empty movie theaters. Many hope their children aren’t uncomfortable by all the mirth shared in honor of a holiday that isn’t ours. They don’t call it the “December Dilemma” for nothing.
But the truth is, this dichotomy is becoming less and less a reality for many Jews across the country.
Many of us have loved ones and friends with whom we share the Christmas season. Many interfaith families must find ways to celebrate the beauty of both Hanukkah and Christmas. And some of us are Jews-by-choice who carry a love of Hanukkah alongside powerful memories of bygone Christmases. With all these changes, the core divisions at the heart of the so-called December Dilemma are no longer so clear-cut. And despite what the pundits may tell you, that’s a good thing.
Every winter, my wife and I pack our bags for warmer climes. December finds us “where the love-light gleams,” as the old song goes. We join our multi-faith family in the South for both Hanukkah and Christmas, a celebration of our rich, diverse roots. The menorah sits alongside the Christmas tree, two symbols of light beaming proudly in the winter night. We play games on the sofa, watch holiday movies, and tussle with the dogs. This picture is far removed from that of the classical Jewish family, once expected to remain isolated from “that holiday.”
When I converted to Judaism some years ago, I came with the assumption that my best Christmases were all behind me. My first Christmas as a Jew was understandably miserable. My family, all devoutly Christian, were still struggling with the news that I had chosen Judaism. Most of my Jewish friends went out of town. The calendar had a gaping hole in it. I spent that month feeling my outside-ness – an inescapable sense that I had abandoned my roots and, along with it, all the joy of my favorite time of year.
Later, my fiancée (now my wife) would urge me to take the best parts of Christmas along with Hanukkah. “There’s no Christian monopoly on snowflakes or eggnog,” she would say. Like the many strong Jewish women who came before her, she’s a smart one. But I didn’t listen at first.
“I’m a Jew,” I said. “Even if I celebrate with others, I really shouldn’t enjoy it. It’s just not right.” Yet as part of an multi-faith family, avoiding Christmas is impossible. Between my own fond memories of the holiday, and the guilt I felt, it was a recipe for several lonely winters.
This whole dilemma comes from a question of what’s authentic. What, as Jews, do we do that sets us apart? What do we refrain from doing that keeps our Judaism real and unique? Many years ago, when the threat of assimilation was a looming question mark over every Jewish community, Christmas seemed like the ultimate battleground, a line in the sand that we could never cross. Now, as we open our hearts to what the Jewish family can look like, as we create new markers of Jewish connectedness... suddenly elves and green trees and cheesy movies don’t seem like the real test of commitment to the Tribe.
With loved ones who celebrate, and our own memories of the holiday season firmly rooted in our hearts, many of us embrace both holidays, Hanukkah and Christmas. We do so without compromising our Jewish beliefs about God, or alienating our needs and that of those around us. My family is not a battlefield in some war against “us” and “them.” It is a vibrant, organic, loving center where I return to feel refreshed and renewed. Without the guilt that used to the haunt the season for me, this winter gleams with the promise of a beautiful pair of celebrations: in light of my roots, together with my family, and without losing sight of who I am. You might say that, as a more confident, less judgmental Jewish man than I once was, my best Christmases are actually ahead of me. Hanukkahs, too.