I am a Jew who loves the pomp of Christmas and adores Hanukkah’s mystical lights of creation.
As daylight evaporates, we’re hurtling toward the darkest day of the year, but I don’t mind. I am a December baby, a child of Connecticut winters, and I love being enveloped in the early darkness. There is something restorative about the sun setting early in a world that becomes a blank, old-fashioned blackboard. My father said I was a night owl. But I don’t harbor the wisdom of an owl. I simply love the velvety night beckoning with possibility.
December is full of contradictions. It is streamlined. It is sloshy. At the first hint of a snowstorm, my father lined up our boots to spray them. He called them galoshes. My dad peppered his speech with contractions like “shan’t” and “whilst.” But he was not pretentious; he was formal—a U.S. naval officer during World War II who admired Winston Churchill and the Royal Air Force. He told me that December was his favorite month because I, his little girl born when he was 42, came into the world. I arrived on the second-to-last day of the year. My accountant father said, “You were the best tax deduction of my life.”
When my children were little, Christmas decorations twinkling on houses and draping bushes awed them to no end. “Oh my gosh!” exclaimed my Jewish kids as if they were the very light of creation. Oh my gosh, indeed. I took them holiday joyriding because I loved extravaganzas of light and color and cheer as much as they did.
In one school, I learned the Latin version of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Amidst everything Christmas, I had my small menorah, steadily emitting the candlelight of the ages. Every Dec. 25 we went to family friends who had a shining tree done up to the hilt. At the base of the tree there were presents for my siblings and me. One year I received a Santa ornament—red and velvet and plump with jolliness. I kept Santa on my dresser all year round. My mother spent Christmas with this family when she was heavily pregnant with me. She told me that she ate so many slabs of fruitcake that year that everyone thought I would be a Christmas baby.
My affection for Christmas is linked to its proximity to my birthday and grew from there. At one point, I all but forgot about Christmas when I went to a Jewish day school. The school was Orthodox, and I attended classes on Christmas Day. I segued to an all-girls’ Catholic high school for reasons having to do with my hesitation around being near boys. No one thought I would last more than two weeks at Mount Saint Joseph Academy. After a few months of coping with the shell shock of being surrounded by so much Catholicism, I came to cherish the literal and figurative sisterhood around me. Years later, my best friend at the Mount said it was only natural for her to marry a Jew. Her husband reminded her of me.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Jose Feliciano’s Christmas hit, “Feliz Navidad.” Finally, a Christmas song was an extension of me, a Latinx kid in an English-only world. My love of Christmas comes in part from my Cuban mother. Although she is Jewish, growing up in a Catholic country made her comfortable with Christmas. My mother and I belted out “Feliz Navidad.” Christmas joy. We adored that part of our identity played over the airwaves. I had not yet heard of Flory Jagoda, who sang a Hanukkah song in Ladino called “Ocho Kandelikas.” My children learned the song in their Jewish day school, and when they sang it to my Sephardic mother, she cried. That was the recognition for which she was truly yearning.
Every year we lit the modest menorah that my mother bought the first Hanukkah she was in the United States. It was a straightforward hanukkiah with a large Star of David anchoring the Shamash, or caretaker candle. We lit the standard-issue Hanukkah candles—short, stubby, practically toppling against each other. My aunt, my dad’s sister, kept a small, glittery Christmas tree on her coffee table that infuriated my mother. My father said the silver tree was subtle. My mother, so fond of celebrating Christmas with her friends who were not Jewish, thought it was disgraceful for a Jew to have any kind of tree. My shouting mother made her limits very clear.
An ex-boyfriend once took me to his family’s house on Christmas Day. I settled on bringing a poinsettia that I was sure was the reddest and most glorious plant my hosts would ever see. I also learned the plant was known as the “Christmas Star.” My ex noted that I mispronounced “poinsettia” when I added a “t” and glossed over the “i.” He also told me not to romanticize kissing under the mistletoe. “Mistletoe is just a parasite,” he said.
My seasonal reverie includes annual viewings of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Love Actually.” I like the former film’s “what if” stance. What if George Bailey had never been born? Mary would have been a spinster librarian and the Granville House would have remained spookily uninhabitable. My own “what if” thoughts take up a lot of space in my head. Right or left? Go to the party or stay home? I went to the party and met my future husband. He’s a sweet guy who always cries during “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But I like “Love Actually” better, which makes me some sort of Christmas heathen. Billy Mack, the washed-up rock star, is my man. He’s all about second chances and late bloomers as he miraculously shoehorns one of his old songs into a Christmas hit. Billy also delivers a line that always cracks me up: “Hiya, kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them for free.”
In 1994, there was a spate of antisemitic incidents in Billings, Montana, culminating with someone throwing a cinder block at a home displaying a menorah. The brick shattered a little boy’s bedroom window; luckily, he was not in his room. Law officials suggested that the family remove Jewish symbols visible from their home. The advice did not sit well with them, and soon, the town resolved the problem in an act of solidarity and stunning community goodwill. The local newspaper published a full-page drawing of a menorah for readers to cut out and display. Thousands of families who were not Jewish placed them in their windows, and Billings became a full-on celebration of Hanukkah. It was reminiscent of Denmark’s King Christian’s willingness to wear a yellow armband with a Star of David should the Nazis try to round up Danish Jews. The Nazis never invaded Denmark, but that story, and now what the good people of Billings did, have become legendary.
This year I’ve noticed some people have very publicly decorated their houses for Hanukkah. I’ve seen blown-up menorahs and dreidels on people’s front lawns. Blue and white lights are strung up. More lights of creation. As much as I enjoy the Christmas season, I’m delighted that Hanukkah has emerged in its own right. As one of my friends, Susan Katz Miller, who has written a book about growing up as an interfaith child and has a blog called “Being Both,” so perfectly says: “Don’t be afraid that Christmas will outshine little Hanukkah. Appreciate Hanukkah for its intimacy and lack of commercialism, and your children will grow up doing the same. If you celebrate both, you can certainly get away with cutting back on the number of gifts involved with each of them, so that the toys take a back seat to the shared mystical theme of light in the darkness of the solstice.”
Oh my gosh….