Politics

As Hanukkah begins, strong feelings on holiday season – The Forward

In her latest “Looking Forward” column, our editor-in-chief, Jodi Rudoren, went on something of a rant about a new Old Navy commercial purporting to celebrate the “ALL-idays” but in fact redolent of the colors, symbols and sayings of Christmas.

Rudoren acknowledged that she has always had a big Christmas chip on her shoulder, and said she wanted only to be left out of the so-called “holiday season,” noting that the Jewish holiday season comes in early fall. She resented being asked to bring “family favorite holiday cookies” to her son’s school, and shared less-than-fond memories of singing a blended Hanukkah-Christmas song in elementary-school concerts.

But Rudoren also noted the increasing number of Jews married to non-Jews — 42% overall, according to the latest Pew Research study, and 61% of those married since 2010 — and wondered how other people experience the Christmas conundrum. Scores of readers responded to our callout, sharing holiday memories, traditions and (strong) feelings that spanned several generations.

“Sadly, I knew more Christmas music than Jewish music,” Ellen Lerner said of growing up in a private school with daily chapel services. Another reader, Fay Lichtman Gold, whose brother was born on Dec. 25, said she thought for years the whole world celebrated his special day. James Borden was one of several who mentioned volunteering or working on Christmas.

“I am grateful for having a multicultural experience,” wrote Vicki Coss. “It contrasts with my own traditions and makes my traditions even more important to me!”

Below are more excerpts from our inbox.

Fresh off the boat from what used to be Russia but is now Ukraine in 1914, my grandfather saw what was going on with the Christmas stuff in Chicago and was convinced it was an American holiday. This shul-going Jew, in an attempt to be considered a Yankee from South Shore, hung stockings for my mother and her sisters and gave them big gifts on Dec. 25. Don’t know what they did on Hanukkah.

This tradition continued for me and my sister, minus the shul component. We hung stockings from our fireplace, decorated that area with winter scenery including reindeer, went for lunch at Marshall Field’s around the tree and sat on Santa’s lap. Big gifts on Christmas morning. Hanukkah? A tin Hanukkiyah and maybe a handkerchief and gelt. And a family dinner.

I continued this tradition with my children until 1968, when we joined B’nai Jehoshua Beth Eolhim, and during the lead-up to Christmas 1969, announced to my family that we were done with Christmas. Shock! Disappointment! Anger! But I stuck to my position, because if I was going to raise three Jewish sons, I’d be damned if I was going to send mixed messages.

—Sandee Holleb

My family was one of about 12 Jewish families in a town of 6,500 in Central Pennsylvania. When I was growing up in the 1960s, Christmas was just part of the culture.

The winter choral program at school was about Christmas. If you liked to sing, that was your only opportunity. Parties? If you wanted to see your friends, you went to a Christmas party.

So as a child, I thought Christmas was a lovely social occasion with sparkly colored lights and yummy cookies. We never celebrated it at home, and the religious significance was not relevant to me.


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As an adult, I am very grateful to live in a city with a large, diverse Jewish community. We still practice Judaism only at home, but we are always invited to celebrate Christmas with Irish Catholic friends. It is always warm and lovely.

I am grateful for having a multicultural experience. It contrasts with my own traditions and makes my traditions even more important to me!

—Vicki Coss

I enjoy hearing Christmas music and looking at all the lights, but don’t need to have those things for myself in order to feel good about Jewish holidays.

—Carol Saltzman

I am one of that 42% with a non-Jewish spouse. (For what it’s worth, Wife No. 1 is Jewish and our lovely daughters are, too.) I never had Christmas celebrations or anything close to it in my childhood, but now we “do” it a little.

The bay laurel is decorated with chili pepper and corn (or Korn) lights, one stocking — not mine — is hung by the chimney with care, we eat a ton of latkes and maybe a jelly doughnut or two, and we celebrate the fact that our backgrounds have brought us personal interactive traditions.

They are not religious traditions, and do not define us as Jewish or Gentile within the context of our family or community or our congregation. But they still in a way describe us within those contexts, and as such strengthen our bonds. So, it works for us.

—David G. Korn

Things that I will do to mark more than celebrate Christmas on Christmas Day:

– Listen to “Fairytale of New York.” It’s not Christmas without that.

– Watch the slate of NBA games.

– Attend the Jewish and Muslim Day of Service here in St. Louis.

– When Christmas falls on Friday night I will make one Chinese-style vegetable.

—James Borden

Your turn: Readers on Christmas, Hanukkah and the ‘holiday season’

In 1952, I was adopted as a baby by a middle-class Catholic family here in New York City. I knew nothing about my biological history until I found my birth mother when I was in my 20s. She’s Catholic, no surprise, as I was adopted through a Catholic agency, but it was big news to me that my biological father (who had died just months before I found her) had been Jewish.

Going to public schools on Long Island, where I grew up, I knew lots of Jewish kids, and Judaism wasn’t foreign to me. But, knowing it was half of my family history, I proudly embraced that part of my heritage. And I found that I became sensitive to misrepresentation and marginalization of Jews and Judaism, especially the annual inundation of all things Christmas — the music, the movies, the public decorations, the ads, the sales.

Catholicism lost me decades ago, for a variety of reasons. Now, I have friends who celebrate Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and I acknowledge all with them. But to try to pretend that “happy holidays” doesn’t really mean “merry Christmas” with a wink toward the other celebrations around the same time is just disingenuous.

—Pat White

One of the ways of avoiding all of that Christmas stuff is to make aliyah. On one of the early Decembers that we lived here in Israel, we went to IKEA on Dec. 25 and the music playing over the public-address system was “Maoz Tzur,” which I found delightful and somehow even a little spiteful.

—Marsha Stein

Years ago, I bought the tackiest plastic electric menorah, which we display in our living room window for eight nights and then put away. This was a big step for me, as a child of Holocaust survivors, who grew up very “private” (read: nervous, closeted) about being Jewish.

One lingering thread of tradition-envy left over from my unaffiliated and secular childhood, combined with a taste for sweet things, led me to design a 3D gingerbread menorah last year, which we enjoyed for eight days, and that’s all. We might make it again, but it’s not what I’d call a tradition.

I was once in a shop in December (a month I soon renamed “avoid-retail-month”), admiring a framed poster that I thought would look great in my apartment. When I went to the counter to ask for it, I was asked “is it a gift?” I replied, “nope, it’s for me,” and the clerk exclaimed “but it’s Christmas!” I left without buying anything.

—Suzy Tanzer

When I grew up, Hanukkah songs were not included in our December concerts. Sadly, I knew more Christmas music than Jewish music.

I went to a private girls high school, which was “independent,” yet we had Christian chapel first period everyday. My class had 20 girls, and three of us were Jewish. We sang the doxology before lunch everyday, and I kind of stayed silent during the trilogy part.

I was a cantorial soloist at a Reform synagogue for 18 years, and since sixth grade I was active in temple choirs wherever I lived. As an adult, for a few years I was part of the paid quartet at a Christian church. I have to say that some of the most beautiful music I have heard or sung is the result of Christian composers. There is beautiful Jewish music, to be sure, but not quite the same for me.

My secret desire, although not very realistic, was that the Christmas holiday would be changed from Christmas to another name that is more about lighting up the darkest month of the year. Then, regardless of religious belief, we could all put out lights and colors, etc., and light up the dark night. Maybe it would not be on the 25th of December but another day. I know it will never happen.

—Ellen Lerner

My older brother was born on Dec. 25. Until I was a little older, I really thought the whole world was celebrating my brother’s birthday.

—Fay Lichtman Gold

Let me begin by saying that my father was a Holocaust survivor who ended up living on Martha’s Vineyard, where my mother’s family had established a strong foothold in the 1910s. My grandfather came here as the first Jewish person to settle on the island and then he brought more family members over from Lithuania. Other Jewish families settled here, and they founded a congregation in 1940. This grew and became a healthy Jewish center of prayer and learning.

There have never been a large number of Jewish children in the local schools, especially when my siblings and I were growing up in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. We were usually the only ones in our classrooms. So the celebration of Christmas was pretty much the only acknowledged holiday in December.

I can only speak about my own nuclear family because I don’t know what the other Jewish families did, since there was no community celebration. But in the privacy of our home, we would light the menorah every night! Mom always put it on a table in the front windows of the house. We had learned a few Hanukkah songs at weekly Hebrew School (when the teacher was able to fly in if the weather wasn’t too bad) and would sing those. We knew the basic story of the Maccabees. Mom always made a delicious batch of latkes and we would help grate the potatoes. And she always made sure we had a little gift for each night.

I know that she didn’t want us to feel left out, especially when we would get back to school after the vacation break. She had always felt so left out that she told us years later about how, when she would go back to school after vacation, she would make up a story about all the gifts she had gotten. When she was growing up in the 1920s and ‘30s, she was one of even fewer Jewish children here and her parents didn’t know much about Hanukkah at all since it was considered such a minor holiday in the Old Country. And they certainly didn’t celebrate it.

Your turn: Readers on Christmas, Hanukkah and the ‘holiday season’

As for my Christmas celebrations, in my childhood I remember going to the home of a friend, the mother of a young girl that my mom babysat for, and being so impressed with her beautiful Christmas decorations. She had stuff everywhere; the tree covered in lights and tinsel and so much more. Or at least it seemed like so much at the time. We would get delicious cookies before we left, and it all felt so foreign and exotic.

I don’t remember any other involvement with Christmas, except of course for the required Christmas concert at school and that didn’t include the dreidel song until years later. There may have been more but I think I’ve managed to block it out.

Fast forward to years later, when I became very close friends with a family who came from a line of Episcopalian priests. They never tried to make any less of my Jewishness, but they also never excluded me from their Christmas celebrations, which were pretty elaborate. The tree decorating alone had a party just for that. The holiday feast was a true feast.

Those friends are all dead now, but I do have such happy memories from those days, which really were pretty magical. For me it was more about being with dear friends, celebrating in the warmth or their home with candlelight and all the rest of it, more of a festival for the dark days of winter. Without the religious part.

Now I am so happy to be able to celebrate Hanukkah with my Jewish community here on the Island, and Christmas has become more or less just another day. Before the pandemic, we would hold a huge Hanukkah party and many people of other faiths would attend. Last year we had a nightly Zoom candle lighting and that worked so well that we’re doing it again this year.

This helps me to not miss my mom so much. She died five years ago and I would always light the Hanukkah candles, (or turn on the bulbs on the electric menorah in later years), with her every night.

—Gayle D. Stiller

My second grandchild’s birthday is Dec. 24. In the hospital, the nurse kept on insisting that she should have a Santa hat. I kept saying no, even before my daughter could answer. After the third or fourth time, I finally said “NO. This is a Hanukkah baby, not a Christmas baby.” My daughter was horrified.

—Helene Szabo

Your turn: Readers on Christmas, Hanukkah and the ‘holiday season’

For many years, I belonged to Jewish organizations that donated our time on Christmas day volunteering, taking the places of Christians so they could be home on their holiday, or bringing food and gifts to Christian first-responders. I always liked doing that mitzvah.

—Donna L. Halper

The students in my Brooklyn grade school were Jewish, except for 10 students. I recall in kindergarten, Santa came to visit our classroom. I had no idea who Santa was. We made stockings to hang (someplace). When I got home with my stocking, I was in a panic as we had no fireplace to hang it and how was Santa going to find my stocking? We had no chimney.

We had a gas stove next to a courtyard window. The window had a wide ledge. Hmm. that made sense to 5-year-old me. My mother left the window open a crack and I hung the stocking on the stove’s knob. I don’t recall if Santa put anything in the stocking. That was my first and last encounter with the Christmas ritual growing up. I think it made my parents realize that they had to have some kind of holiday ritual for their children.

—Helen Davis

Like many physicians, my holiday to take call, from my student days at a Jesuit university, was always Christmas. The patients didn’t want to be there, the police dogs providing security when walking with the constables from a leash probably didn’t want to be wearing those phony antlers. But sick people, particularly those in isolation, much appreciated the banter and concern, even if in our gowns we looked more like King Arthur than Santa.

They understood that we Jews, Hindus, Muslims, oldest in the group that no longer had kids — or least senior in the group that forced them to an undesirable call obligation — all made their holiday a little better than it might have otherwise been.

—Richard Plotzker

In my early 20s, I was assigned the task to decorate the departmental Christmas tree at work. Never ever having done this, I was bemused, but managed to complete the task.

I noticed there was no fancy ornament for the top of our little tree. I went to the supply cupboard, pulled out a nice yellow sheet of bristol board, cut out a very large Magen David and somehow managed to stick it on the top of the tree.

The reactions were priceless, they weren’t sure how to react, but no one dared take it down. The only time I actually sort of celebrated Christmas — it was fun!

—Elaine Singer

I converted to Judaism from Methodism decades ago out of a desire to live among people who shared my values. And I’m “all in” — I sent my son to Jewish day school, I’ve been a hard-working member of my synagogue board, and I light the Shabbat candles. But I don’t have any real complaint about what happens in December.

Your turn: Readers on Christmas, Hanukkah and the ‘holiday season’

The majority of people around me are “secular Christians,” and I appreciate their approach to a celebration that is mostly secular, too. The evergreens, Santa, the pressure to buy gifts, frantic cookie-making, glitzy parties — I don’t mind the majority culture enjoying its traditions in a noisy, gleeful display.

In fact, I still love the Christmas trappings. I bought a few classic Christmas albums to which I sing along. I ride around town looking for a good light display that will brighten up the dismal winter night. I have a little stash of 1950s tree ornaments that remain unwrapped in their bag but still warm me with memories of our wonderful Christmases when I was young.

—Anonymous

As a child, I resented it all. For a country that was not supposed to have a government-established religion, there certainly seemed to be one — sometimes by the government itself (national holiday) and most often by American “culture.”

I love colored lights, but refused to even look at them, let alone enjoy them, until I was in my 50s. I resented that the festival of lights was hijacked, with non-Jews celebrating with lots of lights all over the place, and although we certainly had our regular Hanukkiyot, my mother thought electric menorahs were “goyish” and so we couldn’t even have that.

A few years ago, I rebelled. I decided that I would take back my lights. I decorated my dining room with dancing dreidel lights and put an electric menorah in the front window (with memories of my big sisters almost burning down our house one year when the cloth part of the venetian blinds starting singing and smoking after they had put a candle menorah in the living-room window). I still light oil and candle Hanukkiyot on the table, visible by other windows, and starting two years ago I put blue chasing lights as a border for the front window to draw attention to the electric menorah and, hopefully, the miracle.

—Nechamah Goldfarb

My entire ancestry came from Bavaria. After the Thirty Years War, Jews were welcome in Bavaria, provided they joined either the Catholic or Lutheran churches as well as doing whatever else we did (the last Jews in my great-grandfather’s native village were Orthodox as late as Kristalnacht).

The result was that the family was highly assimilated. We did the full Christmas shtick and also lit a menorah on the appropriate nights. Presents? Dec. 25. Tree? Called a Christmas tree. Christmas was the civil holiday about presents and had decent muzak associated with it. Hannukah was what had theological content.

My first disputation was in kindergarten at Sunday school with Mrs. Miller, of blessed memory. “We celebrate Hannukah, not Christmas,” she said. “We celebrate Christmas!” I piped up. A screaming match ensued, neither of us backing down. We used different definitions of “we” — the Jewish people vs. my family.

The first year I refused to participate was my first year in graduate school. I was interested in a frum young lady, and so needed to distance myself from the family tradition. I didn’t fly home until Dec. 26, leaving my newly widowed mother to spend Dec. 25 alone. The best theoretical work I ever did was done in isolation that day. By the time I went looking for dinner, nothing was open; it is the only night of my life I involuntarily went to bed hungry.

For the last 45 years, I and my family have only observed Hannukah. We were in Israel for Hannukah once. We lit candles, sang Maoz Tzur, and went on about our business. We saw one taxi cab with a menorah on the roof. Nothing fancy. Nothing else commercial. It felt right.

—Alexander Scheeline

Your turn: Readers on Christmas, Hanukkah and the ‘holiday season’

I am married to a Catholic. How that happened is a weird story, but it did and we’ve been married for over 30 years. I HATE Christmas. He loves it. I avoid it. We have a tree, which I will always call a Christmas tree because my tree holiday comes in Shevat.

I avoid every single possible overlap. I never sing Christmas songs, never miss a night of candles; I brought a menorah to my in-laws whenever Hanukkah and Christmas overlapped. My husband is very much on board with Hanukkah and all the holidays, including the High Holydays but he participates in the majority culture, which makes it easier to be generous.

—Anonymous



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