It’s over. My Dad told me that we have to break up. Like the bully in the class telling everyone Santa isn’t real, my father has ripped you from me. I am no longer permitted to flirt my way around the holiday scene, potato latkes in one hand and candy cane in the other. I am destined by the supreme being himself, my father, to marry a “nice Jewish boy.” My fireplace will be lined with 8 Chanukah presents, devoid of bulging red stockings. My children will have brown eyes, thick curly hair, and a fair share of Keratin. And they too will marry scrawny, little Jewish boys.
Christmas, I pray you don’t forget me when I refrain from singing Jingle Bells during the holidays. Don’t fret when you can’t find me among the crowd at Rockefeller center. Just know that no kougal has come close to your frosted gingerbread cookies. No rendition of “dreidel dreidel dreidel” sweeps me away like Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer. The menorah will never outshine your luminous ornaments. I promise that my love for you has been like that of a Bubbe for shmear. But like the Israelites learned well in Exodus 32, God can get pretty jealous. Therefore, no matter how jolly Santa may be, you shall not be my Golden calf. There is no room for Christmas and Chanukah in my December calendar.
I confess that despite my parents’ attempts, you were my first love. If you really want to go back to the the Jewish incubator, I was enrolled at Temple Emanuel at age three. Temple Emanuel is a product of the first Jewish immigrants, and therefore looks like a Jewish teen trying to fit in at a catholic school. The few memories I still retain of this highly Jewish institution consist of playing with blocks and finger painting. In particular, I remember the red and yellow brush strokes plastered over my tiny palms as I stared wide eyed into the curly brown hair of my friend and asked, “Are you Jewish too or Christmas?” Yes, Christmas, I thought you were a religion.
We met formally in Kindergarten and it was love at first sight. Trinity School was the first institution I was enrolled in that wasn’t entirely made of “Js” as my family calls them. We were informed that we were lucky to have Jews in our school at all. My dad calls just about everywhere but New York and Israel “the real world” where the stark statistic of .001% is a reality. He told us since we were young that in “the real world” no one knows what a bat mitzvah or a kippah is. No schools put out matzah or pretend that Christmas and Hanukkah are equals. In the real world you have to hold on tight to your Judaism or it might just slip away for good. The barren Jewless desert of the “real world” was not Trinity Kindergarten. Trinity made its best effort to underplay its Christian roots. But that first winter season my parent’s hermetic bomb shelter broke open as I experienced my first true Christmas.
Walking into the school lobby, I was hit by an array of green and red lights streaming from the ceiling. They shone over the masses of smiling lower schoolers. My eyes were immediately drawn to the giant tree that seemed to loom five times my size. Each of its branches held onto a shining ornament. I knew the presents under the tree were empty but that didn’t stop my compulsive need to pick them up and shake them. I hardly remembered the holiday I had been celebrating for five years until I caught a glimpse of a sad menorah whose candles seemed to droop over with shame. It sat on a table on the far left of the room, surrounded by a few lonely pieces of gelt. I turned away my eyes ashamed, back to the festivities that surrounded the tree. I hardly had time to think about the lone little menorah as I headed off to Christmas chapel and stomped my feet to the sound of the “Twelve days of Christmas.” And it wasn’t until I got home that night and I was watching the wax drip slowly down the Shamash that I was reminded that you weren’t supposed to be my love.
I learned pretty early on that my love for you was meant to be secret. After going to Jewish Pre-school I was sent to Hebrew School once a week for about seven years. Here, one might think, I would be able to get over you. Every Tuesday I got dropped of at the Deli on the corner of Temple with two of my closest friends. We were greeted by Avram as he shouted our French fry orders across the counter in his small shop. Then it was off to T’fliah where our Female Korean head Rabbi waved her hands in the air as we shouted our favorite Hebrew songs set to contemporary music. Often, this concert was followed by our own personal Broadway show, as our Hebrew School Teachers got up in costumes to act out scenes from the Torah. I can still hear the booming voice of my third grade teacher Lee who often played God. I can still see the arms of my spunky fourth grade teacher Tova drenched in the ink of intricate tattoos. I can still smell the greasy fries that stained our fingers that followed along the lines of our prayer books.
I’m not sure what I was supposed to learn at Hebrew school. I definitely learned the rules, the traditions, and the Hebrew letters. I know when to put up the sukkah and when to stop eating bread. I know that when I hear kadosh kadosh kadosh I go up on my toes three times. I learned that as a reformed Jew I was pretty much free to interpret the Torah how I wanted. I didn’t have to attend services every Friday night or keep kosher. I didn’t have to wear a wig or refrain from touching unmarried men. I was expected to keep Passover, and fast on Yom Kippur but if I broke the rules once or twice, I would not be punished. The list of dos and don’t weren’t quite as clear as the naughty and nice list, but one thing was made certain, Christmas did not fall under the list of holidays I got to celebrate.
I cannot completely blame my parents or my Jewish education as the obstacles that have stood between you and me, breaking off our fling at each corner, just as I get a little better taste of your warm, jolly embrace. No, something a bit more inherent lies behind my dad’s constant reminders that our spouses will be Jewish and our kids will be bar and bat mitzvahed. If I had to classify it, I would name it guilt. If I had to quantify it, it would be the number 6 million, burned into my being like a never fading skin tag. If I had to make a metaphor of it, it would be the glue that lets me make a connection with any Jew I meet within the span of thirty-five minutes. Yes, I’m adhered to Judaism by the the stories I have heard from survivors and from by the books I’ve read: Anne Frank, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and The Book Thief. With an ever smaller bubble of “J’s” I know, without anyone having to teach me, that I have a responsibility to take care of the traditions that so many suffered for. So how did I take a slight right and fall into a whole other faith, and a love for a tradition that is not my own—Christmas?
Now that I have gotten my big bad confession off my chest, I realize you must get letters like this all the time. I mean, there must be other children drawn in by your trinkets and bright lights. I’m not the first one in history to break off of Judaism and explore. No, that would basically be the origin of Christianity and Islam. So why do I feel like a rebel hiding under my covers listening to Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is You”? And why should I?
If I only dip my toes into the pool of Christianity, my feet will not be too impure to return to the bema. I guess what I’m trying to say is that tradition, at least in my mind, is not tied closely enough to faith that enjoying a sweet candy cane goes against the wishes of the ancestors who fought for me. No, unlike my preschool self thought, Christmas is not a religion. I may not have the whole Judaism thing figured out right now but while I still can, I’m going to yell out the lyrics to “Frosty the Snowman,” enjoy some frosted ginger bread cookies, and maybe I’ll even stuff a stocking or two. But Christmas you will no longer be my secret lover. I will you wear you proudly on my chest, like an ugly Christmas sweater. Because when I celebrate Christmas I am hardly thinking about baby Christ. I’m thinking about the smiles that persist in the dead of winter because of warm peppermint hot cocoa. So let them interpret my love for you however they want. Let them name me the creator of a new religion. A religion that preaches finding a smile by stealing scraps of a tradition here and there. I think I can find time to fit both you and Chanukah in my busy winter schedule. After all,
The more the merrier.
Your faithful believer,