There’s a Jew on Santa’s lap: A Jewish journey with Christmas

It happens around this time every year. It starts as a little tingling feeling in the pit of my stomach that gradually works it’s way up to my heart where it settles as less ‘tingling’ and more “warm and fuzzy”. This is around the time the cravings start too, and I don’t just mean for food (though if you happen to have a rum ball or some peppermint bark on ya and you’d be willing to share, I would be most grateful). My cravings center around my need for the smooth, jazz-like vocal-styling of the one and only, Nat King Cole. But it’s not a round of his greatest hit, “Unforgettable”, that I’m craving. Oh no, it’s his version of “The Christmas Song” that I’m itching to hear and searching for on the radio, for you see, I am a Jew who digs on the Christmas spirit.

If you are a regular or even somewhat-regular reader of my blog, Jewhungry, you know that I am the product of an inter-religious marriage. My mother is Jewish and my dad is Protestant and ever since they divorced when I was 4 years-old until roughly the age of 13, my brother and I spent Christmas with my dad.  Let me just say this, for the record, if you asked us then, we would have told you straight up that we had no doubts in our little Jewish minds that Santa Claus did not exist. At no point in our childhood did we wish that we ONLY ‘celebrated’ Christmas. To be perfectly honest (and I did not realize this until I was much older), we didn’t “celebrate” Christmas at all. Sure, we decorated a Christmas tree and even received ‘Christmas’ presents however, we did not ‘celebrate’ Christmas. We respected our father and the different type of family we had (our dad remarried and had another daughter, my sister Heather, when I was 6) and so our dabbling into Christmas as children wasn’t so much “celebrating” as respecting and experiencing it along side our family.

My brother and I unwrapping presents circa 1987.
My brother and I unwrapping presents circa 1987.


My sister and I, circa 1989, with ol' St. Nick --- he looked like a jolly Rebbe to me.
My sister and I with ol’ St. Nick — he looked like a jolly Rebbe to me.

The fact that my stepmother was the epitome of a true Southern hostess helped amp up our ability to accept and respect the traditions or our new family. The weekends before Christmas were spent decorating and baking while Nat King Cole and cups of hot chocolate brought us to our cozy place. Every Christmas Eve we would stay up late watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation while snuggled in our sleeping bags munching on cookies in the shape of reindeer. And though we were absolutely certain of Santa’s non-existence, we had a sweet little sister who believed and we played right along with her, hoping to prolong her belief just one more year.

Some years we got all dressed up in our Shabbat-wear to go and listen to our dad sing in his church’s choir. Many years later, some colleagues of mine questioned me about the “appropriateness” of our father taking his Jewish kids to church on Christmas Eve, but oddly, I didn’t feel the need to stand up for my father’s decision to take us to church. Rather, my response to this judgement of parenting was (and still is) rooted in the defense of the strength and depth of our mother’s steadfastness with our Jewish education. Sitting in church listening to our father sing or decorating a Christmas tree was no more a “threat” to our Jewish identifies as going to the mall or watching TV in America. Christmas was, and still is, everywhere, but my brother and I never once questioned our Judaism or holiday observance. Our Jewishness was steeped into every fiber of our beings and the assumption that experiencing Christmas might make us question our Judaism gave no credibility to us as thoughtful individuals or my mother for providing us with a strong sense of Judaism. And so, for my brother and I, sitting on Santa’s lap was akin to going to see Mickey Mouse in Disney World — it was a fun, magical thing to do that reminded us that we were kids and doing fun and magical things was frikkin’ awesome.

Therefore, every year for roughly 7 years, my brother and I respected and experienced a form of Christmas. Our experience not only brought us closer to our sister, dad and stepmother, it also allowed us to feel a little less alienated in a predominantly Christian world; not because we identified with being Christian, but because we were familiar with the concept and a few of the rituals of the Christian world around us. My brother and I have always felt grateful for that.

We stopped doing the whole Christmas ‘thing’ as our sister got older and my brother and I became teenagers. It wasn’t so much a lack of wanting to be together or separate ourselves from Christmas that caused a shift in  our experience so much as life itself getting in the way. We would go over for dinner and ‘warm fuzzies’, but it was never the same as we got older.

I have a child of my own now; a sweet little 16 month-old girl. Though we don’t get to Atlanta to be with my dad and our family down there during this time of year, she will know that her Aunt and Grandfather celebrate this thing called, “Christmas” and heck, I might even show her a picture of her Jewish mama sitting on Santa’s knee.

About the Author
Whitney Fisch received her Master's in Social Work from the University of Michigan and works as a middle school counselor. She previously held positions as the Director of Education for the Anti-Defamation League's Florida region and the Director of Outreach and Education at the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. When not dealing with the trials and tribulations of roughly 200 middle schoolers at varying stages of puberty, she is cooking...a lot. She blogs about all things food and life at her blog, JewHungry. She's currently shvitzin', er, living in Miami with her husband and their daughter.
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