Like many North American Jews, I grew up with major tree envy. I love everything about Christmas: the lights, the corny movies, the festive toy catalogs, and the good cheer – no matter how contrived.
Let me be clear: there is nothing religious about my infatuation. I love the materialistic and pop culture Christmas Western society has created.
But along with my longing for Christmas came a crushing sense of guilt. In the Diaspora,singing “Jingle Bells” and buying stockings – or God forbid – a tree (known also as the euphemistic Hanukkah bush) is tantamount to assimilation and betraying the time-honored faith our ancestors had survived the Inquisition, pogroms and the Holocaust to preserve. So as much as I wanted to love Christmas, I couldn’t. It was taboo.
It was easy to forget Christmas once I moved to Israel. When I pass a Christian town in December I may glimpse a tree or lights or Santa, but it’s not the same. Christmas does not have a presence here.
At the same time, part of what helped me forget about Christmas is the fact that Hanukkah is a real holiday here. There are festivals, songs on the radio and colorful sweets, all branded for our holiday. It stands on its own; it’s not the appetizer before the main course, like it was when I was growing up.
Three years ago, I spent the year in Greece with my family. For my Israeli husband, Christmas is a novelty, a cultural phenomenon. He doesn’t have my complex.
In Athens, we sent our son to the neighborhood nursery where Christmas was the default. When he came home with Santa Claus artwork and tree decorations, we rolled with it. We willingly attended a slew of tree-trimming parties at the U.S.-based institute where my husband studied.
When we found out we weren’t invited to the nursery’s Christmas play, we were disappointed and even thought for a moment they were discriminating against us (“anti-Semites!”); they claimed it was because Amitai was too young to participate. As compensation, we watched Santa Claus parading around the streets of Athens.
My Greek Christmas experience was liberating. It allowed me to come out of the Yuletide closet and embrace my love of Christmas.
Last year, we happened to be in Central Florida on December 25. Jet-lagged with nothing to do at 4 a.m., our family gathered around the hotel Christmas tree. Then, when the CVS next door opened (the only attraction in town), we bought small gifts for each other.
As an Israeli, I worry less about my sons assimilating. When my oldest asked me when Christmas was this year, I answered him without a tinge of guilt. We will listen to Christmas songs today and maybe even watch some seasonal children’s shows. We will appreciate the good in Christmas without Jewish Diaspora guilt — the way it should be.