My Dear Friend,
When you visited my house, you seemed confused as you looked from the mezuzah to the wreath on my door. When you walked into our family room, your roaming eyes took in the countless Hanukiah on the table, then jumped across the room to the lights strung across the banister and the holiday tree sitting in front of it. Then you saw the dining room table, decorated with crafts from the girls' preschool years and other Hanukkah gifts. There were questions in your eyes and when the holiday music came on, I could see you wonder. I'm sorry that my mixed-up, crazy way of celebrating the holidays has confused you, whether you are Jewish or not. But I have my reasons. Some of them might even be good ones.
As I gear up for the holidays this year, which seem to have snuck up on me, despite my best efforts to be prepared, I realize that the picture I present of the holidays to the outside world must be very confusing. I am Jewish and I celebrate Hanukkah with my family. But I was not born Jewish and my extended family still celebrates Christmas. My mom has a tree and depending on where we are and what our holiday plans are, we sometimes have Christmas dinner with her, complete with gifts.
My house is decorated for Hanukkah, but that is where things get a bit muddy, because there are other "holiday" decorations there too. To some, they might be considered "Christmas" decorations, and thus, the confusion, so I thought I'd try to clear a few things up.
As I mentioned, I was not born Jewish. I was raised in a family that believed in G-d, and that went to a Bible church, with no particular denomination. We celebrated Christmas and even went to services on Christmas Eve, but the holiday never held as much religious significance to me as it might to others. We had a manger scene that we put out on top of the piano each year, and of course knew the story of the baby Jesus (and even did holiday pageants at church), but the day itself was usually about presents and food.
During my childhood and into my teen years, there were a few things that happened which made me question my connection to organized religion. (Another blog post for another day.) In college, I studied other religions (even Islam) and dated guys who were Catholic, even going to church with them. Nothing seemed to fit quite right. And then I found Judaism. Many of my questions about G-d and Heaven and various other theological quandaries were answered, in a way that made sense to me.
While I was studying for my conversion, I was troubled by the idea of letting Christmas go. I spoke with another woman who had converted many years before and asked her how she dealt with the "loss" of the holiday. She told me that she thought about what it was that she liked so much about it and came up with the cooking and baking, singing carols and songs and giving gifts. She realized that those were all things that she could continue to do, whether in her own home as part of her Hanukkah celebration, or with friends as part of their Christmas celebrations.
When I sat down and really thought about it, I came to the conclusion that my difficultly in letting it go was because of what the holiday represented to me. Family. My dad's family is huge and the holiday get-togethers were always large gatherings of aunts and uncles and cousins, crammed to the rafters at Grandma's house. Christmas meant a big tree in the basement (that we would go out and cut down a few days before), piles of presents underneath and the smell of a ham cooking in the oven. I can still hear the clatter of dishes in the kitchen and the murmur of voices all around the house - with the occasion cackle of laughter from someone or other.
When I moved to LA, I was not able to get back home for as many holiday gatherings as I wanted to, so I started to collect things to connect me to those feelings. I put together a Winnie the Pooh holiday village, to remind me of the snow and the lights. I would get a tree and decorate it and put presents underneath for myself or friends. And I would bake and play Christmas music from November to New Years.
I moved to LA 18 years ago and I converted 14 years ago. In all of that time, I have continued to search for ways to make the holidays mine and to still pay homage (in a way) to my own memories of the family that I do not get to see as often as I'd like (or that is no longer with us).
The Winnie the Pooh village sometimes makes an appearance. Yes, the characters have holiday lights on their houses, and Christmas trees, but it is the characters that draw me in. They remind me of several very close friends I had in college, who were there for me when I needed a family close by and who got me through some very difficult years of growing into an adult.
The little holiday tree in the corner is for my aunt. She paints extraordinary ornaments and decorations, which happen to be of Santa, yes. But the tree is for her. I used to put them across my mantle, but have run out of room. The little pre-lit tree is perfect, until I outgrow that. (She is still painting.) I do not consider it a "Christmas" tree and having it does not make me any less Jewish. (There are also a few Hanukkah items on the tree.)
There are menorahs. Oh, are there menorahs. (Or, more correctly, Hanukiah.) I have the very first one that I bought, for just a few dollars, the first year I celebrated Hanukkah. I have the Winnie the Pooh one that Ray and Ronnye bought me the first year I celebrated with Rob's family. And the list goes on. In addition to the ones we light, I now have several that the girls have made in preschool or Hebrew school, some that we can light and some we cannot. But we display them every year.
Many of the decorations are for the girls. They love looking at holiday lights around town and so a few years ago, I started putting holiday lights out in my yard and on my garage and bears holding a Happy Hanukkah sign. There is a Tigger, too, that happens to have a Santa hat on, but like I said before, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger are a direct link to my college years and some very close friends.
My wish is not to confuse my friends and family or other visitors to our house. I do not want them to wonder if I'm Jewish or not, or whether I celebrate both holidays- which at home, we do not. The girls open presents each night of Hanukkah. We do celebrate Christmas with my mom (this year, in Vegas) and Santa sometimes stops by with a little something for them wherever we might be. (This confuses B quite a bit, because the rest of the year, she is convinced that there is no Santa.) But we are Jewish.
My decorations (both inside my home and out) are my own way to connect back to my childhood and to remember my family and to honor the memories I have. I don't think it confuses my girls, because I explain to them the reasons why I do certain things or have things in the house. They don't wonder about celebrating Christmas (although they do sometimes wonder how Santa gets into the hotel room in Vegas.) For now, it works for us. And, as it happens - so far this year, I haven't been able to get Pooh's village up and out. B keeps asking where it is. Maybe next year.
To all of my friends and family, no matter how you celebrate the holidays, I hope that it is a happy one for you and your family, and I hope that you all have a very Happy New Year.