Christmas can be oppressive for us Jews especially when we’re children. It seems everything out there is Christmas. Every TV special. Every house decorated with streams of ethereal lights. Santa in every commercial touting all the great new toys his elves are toiling away at when he’s not at the mall letting kids sit on his lap and ask for presents. Stockings. Tinsel. Incredibly beautiful indoor trees housing stacks and stacks of presents. Candy canes. A grandmother that was run over by a reindeer. The Nutcracker. Rockefeller Center. A date that doesn’t move around each year. An eve.
What did we have? Eights nights of lighting candles and saying a prayer. An electric orange menorah in the window. Dreidels. A boring song about dreidels made out of clay. Delicious latkes (OK, I can’t complain about that one). Chinese food on Christmas Day. There were presents, of course. In our case we’d get a big one on the first and last night of Hanukkah and small things in between. The holiday couldn’t even figure out how it wanted to spelled!
I wanted Rudolph. I wanted Frosty. I wanted Santa. More than anything I wanted to cover our house and bushes with a fantastic array of twinkling lights. Each year I’d beg my parents for lights, but the closest we came was a paper “Happy Hanukkah” to hang in the window that no one could see after dark. My parents felt for me for I’m sure they were envious as kids as well. They’d put presents by the chimney. They had one of my dad’s best friends dress up as Santa just for me.
“You’re not Santa!” I said in my brattiest tone. “You’re Mickey!”
As an adult I so appreciate my parents for trying especially since Christmas now seems to start before Labor Day making it even more onerous for Jewish people. Which is why I’m so happy for my daughter Sienna who gets to experience both holidays even though Christmas is a bit wacky (my wife’s parents are Christians but of a sect that doesn’t celebrate the holiday, so my wife didn’t even have Christmas growing up. She does now).
Sienna gets to enjoy the power of both holidays. She gets to help Mommy trim our little silver Christmas tree covered with blue lights (silver and blue – the colors of Hanukkah). She gets to help daddy put in the electric menorah’s light bulbs for eight days. Perhaps next year we’ll move on to actually lighting candles as well. She can watch holiday-themed Sophia the First, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Jake and the Never Land Pirates without feeling like an outsider. She gets to revel in Santa’s ho-ho-ho and jiggling belly and enjoy the big Christmas tree in our building’s lobby while also pointing out the building’s silver menorah. We listen to her sing herself to sleep. Sometimes it’s a the Dreidel song. Sometimes it’s a Christmas tune.
She celebrates with her parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and great-grandmother during Hanukkah, five kids running around the house opening presents, spinning dreidels, eating chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. Meanwhile her aunt, uncle and cousin are driving up from Louisiana for a special Christmas visit and we’ll spend Christmas Day with my wife’s family. And boy does she get presents. So many presents we’ll probably need a second apartment in which to store them. But what I love, what I experience through my daughter, is not feeling left out. I feel her soaking in both holidays on an equal plane. She loves evenings when both the Christmas tree and menorah alight basking our living room in a festive glow. For her, “Happy Holidays” truly means “Happy Holidays.”
Religion has yet to play a role in the holidays. I’m not religious. I’m an agnostic, but I somewhat follow Jewish customs. My wife is spiritual, but not religious. We have plenty of time before we have to deal with the religious angle and I’m curious and a bit fearful of what will come.
But for now Sienna gets the best of both worlds (or at least the worlds of Christmas and Hanukkah). She gets to enjoy her dreidels and candy canes; trees and menorahs; presents and presents. It’s a joyous time of year for her and a jubilant one for her parents. I for one have banished holiday envy from my heart as I give a Hanukkah gift to my wife and receive a Christmas gift in return.
I even get my festive lights.
A version of this first appeared on Raising Sienna.