Years ago a new neighbor asked me where we would be purchasing our tree.
“We’re Jewish.” I said, assuming that no further explanation was necessary.
“So?” She pressed.
“So we don’t celebrate Christmas,” I said.
“Why?” She insisted.
Why? Because we’re Jewish. But I didn’t say that. I was stumped and instead I stammered, “We celebrate Hanukkah.”
“But won’t you put up a Christmas tree?” She insisted.
“Will you be celebrating Passover this year?” I tried a different tack.
“No! We’re not Jewish.” She was taken aback.
“It’s the same thing,” I continued. “We celebrate Hanukkah instead.” And just like that I perpetuated the common misconception that I so desperately seek to avoid. Hanukkah is not instead of Christmas, should not be compared with Christmas and is not the Jewish answer to Christmas. Hanukkah is Hanukkah.
The following year the same neighbor took a different approach: “Are you boycotting Christmas again this year?” Boycotting?! There was nothing left to do but laugh and change the subject.
I am not offended by the concept of a “Christmas break,” nor am I comforted that it’s called “Winter Break.” I am fully aware that if Christmas didn’t fall on December 25, our winter break may very well have occurred in mid January, when it’s especially cold and dreary, and an urgent trip to the Caribbean is in order. I will also continue wishing a “Merry Christmas” and not just “happy holidays,” because I respect the tradition and joy of those who celebrate. And I get a huge kick out of receiving L’Shana Tova cards from my Christian friends. I don’t see what the fuss is about – as long as mutual respect continues to guide us.
Christmas is Christmas and Hanukkah is Hanukkah. The High Holidays are far holier than Hanukkah, but logistically speaking, they lack the strategic proximity to Christmas. Therefore, in the diaspora, Hanukkah enjoys an elevated status. The Festival of Lights has become the Festival of Gifts, and I am just as guilty for literally buying in to that shtick. I rationalize that I’m doing my part to stimulate the economy, but the truth is, I’m competing with Christmas and I need a miracle.
Let’s face it, Christmas is a tough contender. The music, the lights, the trees, the colors, Santa, the reindeer… Gelt and dreidels, and latkes on a blue and white platter just can’t compete. And they’re not meant to. But they occur closely together and the comparisons become inevitable, sending parents into a tailspin designed to prove to their kids that missing out on Christmas is no big deal. We have Hanukkah…
Last week I attended a “holiday party.” As I stood around the spectacular room, impeccably decked out in Christmas cheer with the band playing Christmas favorites in the background, I rhetorically wondered why the invite didn’t just call it what it is? A Christmas party. I was happy to participate, but there was nothing Hanukkah or Kwanzaa about it. My musing was interrupted by a question from an acquaintance: “Do you ever miss it?”
“Miss what?” I answered, distracted by a passing hors d’oeuvre tray covered in bacon wrapped scallops.
“Miss decorating your house, putting up lights, the tree… It’s all so pretty and festive. Don’t you want to do it?”
I conceded that while lights would complement the architecture of my house and landscaping, it’s not something we do. That seemed to quell this line of questioning, but refueled my exasperation: How can you miss participating in a tradition that was never yours?
I wanted to ask if she missed fasting this past Yom Kippur.
Maybe we need a miracle. Oh, wait. We had one! So let’s celebrate and embrace it. Even if it’s easier said than done.