Editor’s Note: NYC Dads Group member Larry D. Bernstein writes this post about how he handled the Christmas season while growing up Jewish. Enjoy and happy holidays to all.
I love Christmas lights. Always have.
Kind of ironic, right? After all, I’m Jewish and therefore, I don’t celebrate Christmas. Yet, it’s hard to avoid Christmas and all that goes with it. Between the advertisements, television shows, music, etc., Christmas is everywhere. However, for me, Christmas is just another day.
And that is why at this time of the year, I feel very much like a minority, an other and an outsider. These days that fact does not bother me, but that was not always true.
When I was a kid, I was jealous of those who celebrated Christmas. There were presents, Christmas trees, and stockings hanging on the mantle. What kid wouldn’t want that? Even more than all the festivities, celebrating Christmas was being part of the fabric of society and being just like everyone else.
It wasn’t really Santa Claus that interested me. My mother took care of that early on.
“Santa Claus won’t bring me presents ’cause I’m Jewish, right?”
“You don’t need Santa Claus. I’ll bring you presents.”
And that was that. Good enough for me. While the legend of Santa seemed jolly and fun, by the time I got to thinking he wasn’t going to visit me because of my religious affiliation, I was more interested in the presents. And I was going to get them anyway.
But that didn’t take away the otherness. Everything was closed, nothing was on television – remember it was the prehistoric days before cable and the internet – and I was bored. Even worse, I was sure everyone else was inside enjoying a beautiful and perfect holiday just like on the television shows I watched.
One year my mom made an impromptu Christmas Eve party for my brother and I. I’m not sure where my older brothers or my dad were. Anyway, the only thing I remember was we had snacks including peanut M&Ms. It wasn’t fancy, but it was a nice surprise. And for one Christmas Eve, I didn’t feel so left out.
As I got older, I didn’t care as much about Christmas. I accepted it as a day that cemented my outsider status. When I was in my 20s, I started going to the Matzo Ball. I’m not sure who started the Matzo Ball, but whoever did was a genius. It’s a dance party for Jewish singles that’s held every year on Christmas Eve, and there are a bunch of them around the country.
I was never really into the club/dance party sort of scene, but I did enjoy getting out on Christmas Eve. And no, I never met a woman at the Matzo Ball with a pickup line of, “So, uh, I’m circumcised.” Anyway, I would have a few beers and maybe loosen up and dance a bit. It was really just an excuse to go out and hang out with the other ‘others.’
By the time I got married, I was more enmeshed in the Jewish world and knew less people who celebrated Christmas. I changed the channel when a Christmas song/television show came on. So, while Christmas and its trappings were still omnipresent, I was able to get away from them to some degree.
This break from the holiday had an interesting effect. I came to enjoy the holiday – in my own way. I actually like some of the songs – especially Bruce Springsteen’s version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town. I like the thought of families and friends gathering. Most of all, I like the fact that people are generally nicer to each other during this time of year.
When my children were young, Christmas worried me. As every parent knows, children’s shows are on all the time and when December hits, every show has the same theme: Christmas. Actually, that’s not true. About one show a week focuses on Hanukkah. All of a sudden, there’s a Jewish neighbor or friend. Anyway, I worried my children, like me, would feel left out.
Both boys have expressed such feelings to some degree. One way, I’ve handled this is telling the boys my mom’s story about bringing them presents. While this doesn’t remove the otherness, it reminds them that they aren’t being cheated.
Ultimately, acceptance is the only option. Christmas has some wonderful aspects to it even for those of us who don’t celebrate. This year my family will appreciate one of those aspects when we drive around on Christmas Eve and look at the lights.
To those who celebrate, Merry Christmas. To those who don’t, remember and appreciate all the wonderful holidays and traditions you do celebrate.
A version of this first appeared on Me, Myself and My Kids.
Photo: Lynn Friedman Jewish & Christian Mixed Marriage Holiday Decorations via photopin (license)