The holidays are a strange time for me. I am filled with the wonder and excitement that I felt as a child, but also filled with the stress and worry of gift-giving and time management and wondering how I will get it all done. Gifts for the kids and their teachers, for the gardener and the pest control man, cookies for the neighbors and crossing guards - and what do you mean I need to get my husband a gift? It can get very crazy.
Each year, I feel a little tug, a small desire to go back to the "simple" times of sitting down at the dining room table with the big Sears catalog, and making my list for Santa (with the Barbie Dream House at the top.) Of course, I know that those days are gone - Sears doesn't put out that catalog anymore, I don't think, and Barbie now has a condo- but that doesn't stop me from wishing for them from time to time. As adults, there is so much more to the holidays than sitting up late waiting for Santa, or the unbridled joy of ripping through all that paper in the morning. As adults, we grow and we change, circumstances and situations change and life moves on. Perhaps that is what makes the holidays a struggle for me, even through the happiness and wonder.
Some of my friends know and will remember that I converted to Judaism about 12 years ago. Up to that point, I had always struggled with religion, wondering how a merciful and loving G-d could take parents away or cause "good" people to get diseases. The idea of "Hell", quite frankly, scared the Hell out of me. As a young child, I was often disturbed by sermons in church of a vengeful G-d and had nightmares of war and fire. I studied religions in school, read the Bible cover-to-cover several times, even attended Catholic mass and still wondered. In college, I took a course on Islam and found a more peaceful side of religion, but still did not feel that it was right for me. It was not until I met Rob and began to study Judaism that things clicked into place. This was a religion that made sense to me. Someone told me shortly after I converted that she hoped "He was worth it," meaning Rob. The truth was that he was just the icing on top, that I did not convert for him, but because it made sense to me, for my spiritual journey and on my path to G-d.
As I was going through the classes and conversion process, there was a support group for our class. Someone who had converted many years before opened her home to a few of us and we talked about the process and how things went. My biggest concerns and questions had to do with Christmas. I asked her how difficult it was to let that holiday go. She said that she took it in pieces and dealt with each aspect on its own, after figuring out what about it she would miss the most. For example, she loved to bake holiday cookies and decided that she could still do that, and give them to friends or make them for Hanukkah. She also liked to sing carols, and could continue to do that as well. As I moved forward on my journey, I began to look at the holidays in that respect, trying to parse out the pieces that were most important to me.
What has become apparent to me over the years, is that the holidays never held very much religious significance to me. Before you all begin preparations to tar and feather me on this point, I'll ask you to point out where Santa appears in the Bible. Oh, that's right, he's not there. So when Santa visited my house, it wasn't because we were religious. I'll also remind you that the 3 Wise Men supposedly showed up when Jesus was 3, in Egypt, not at the birth in Bethlehem (it took them that long to find him) and that many scholars believe the birth was not even in December. I believe that the world over the years has taken the story of the birth of Jesus and turned it into what suits them (each respective group) the most. BUT, again, before you tar and feather me, this blog is not intended to be a theological discussion of the origins of Christmas. This is about ME (duh.) As I was saying - for me, I don't recall much religious significance in the holiday. Yes, we did Christmas Eve services, and yes, we sang carols, and yes, we had a nativity scene. But those all seemed to get wrapped up into the total package of presents and other things, and the religious side of it (and perhaps, G-d) got lost.
What I did find, in looking back over the years, and considering what the holidays meant to me, was family. Above all else, family is what I recall about all of those holidays over the years. My dad was one of 11 kids, the 2nd oldest, and my mom the oldest of 6 kids. All have married over the years and most have kids. I was the 4th oldest of 26 (I think) grandkids, just on one side. Many of my aunts and uncles stayed local to Jefferson Ohio, which means that Grandma's house was packed to the gills for holiday dinners. Yes, there were a ton of gifts when we were kids, but the things I remember most are the smell of Grandma's house, and the sound of all of those people - the sound of silverware clanking on plates, dishes being washed, and feet running up and down the stairs. (Oh, and of course, all of the red stockings hanging up and down the sides of the staircase in the basement.) Those are the things I remember, and those are the things I miss the most.
Before you ask why I can't still have the family connection, I will say that I can, but it is much more difficult. I moved across the country for graduate school and in doing so, removed myself from much of my extended family. Rob's family is small, both of his parents are only children, and so holiday gatherings much smaller and quieter and more reserved. In celebrating with his family, I have come to realize how different those celebrations are (all religion aside) and find myself more and more missing those moments in a warm house, packed with people, all talking and eating at once. I did have a moment, last Saturday, at my in-laws house, during Hanukkah dinner. There were 12 of us there, I think, along with the girls and my nephew Arthur (who is 9 months.) At a random point in the evening, I looked around and saw chaos - the girls were out of their seats and running around and Arthur was chattering away, the adults having several different conversations and plates and silverware clanking. I stopped for a minute and just smiled. For that briefest of moments, I was back in the middle of Grandma Wolf's house at Christmas and it made me smile.
I still find ways to celebrate, in my own small way. I put up holiday lights on my house, although they are blue and white lights (traditional Jewish and Israeli colors) and lit bears holding "Happy Hanukkah" signs. I still have candles in my windows, but they are in a menorah. I still play Christmas music (check out my list below) and I still put up some decorations. (With small kids, how can you not?) I have all of the santa ornaments that Aunt Sue has painted, and they go up across my mantle every year. And I bake cookies. A lot of cookies. Some day, I may even venture into the world of "Hanukkah bushes" but for now, I'm contenting myself with Winnie the Pooh's winter village on my dining room table.
And now for some lighter fare - one of my most vivid holiday memories is from my senior year of high school. The year before, we had spent several hours of Christmas Eve at a friend's house down the street from my mom's house, playing board games and just being kids. My senior year, we were back for a bit of the same. At the end of the evening (well past midnight,) we left our friend's house to wander back up the street to our house. We came outside and it had snowed. The street was covered (there were no cars around at that hour) and everything was white. It was beautiful.
Some more random, lighter, holiday banter. My favorite holiday songs? I'll give you the top 3: (1) I'll be Home for Christmas (duh.) (2) All I want for Christmas is You, and (3) O Holy Night. (Seriously, I don't care what you celebrate, Mariah Carey's version of this song is just beautiful. Straight no Chaser has a pretty good version as well.) Honorable mention - I'm dreaming of a White Christmas - particularly the intro that is not even in most versions, about the sun shining and the grass green and orange and palm trees sway. Yes, I still listen to Christmas music. I have it on my iPod and my car radio is tuned to the Sirius holiday station. It does not make me any less Jewish to listen to Christmas music. Especially the one about something being stuck in the chimney, or the Redneck 12 Days of Christmas. Those just make me smile.
A few of you asked me last year around this time (probably in response to a post about the holidays then), what some of the differences were between Hanukkah and Christmas. I promise I will get that posted here soon (maybe even before this Christmas.)
Regardless of what you are celebrating, I wish you the joy of family this season, and peace. I hope you all have a warm and dry place to sleep and someone to snuggle with (whether 2 legs or 4) and I wish you all a very happy holiday season.