For most of my grade school years, I loved celebrating Christmas with my classmates. Our classrooms had Christmas trees that we decorated, and a teacher would visit us dressed like Santa. In English, we wrote letters to the North Pole and in math, we received candy canes for doing well on tests. Just before the holidays, the school would put on a big Christmas concert, for which we’d dress up like elves and sing carols for our parents. As you can imagine, it was quite the spectacle.
Though I was raised Jewish, I always looked forward to these December festivities. That was, until I got to junior high school. By then, celebrating Christmas began to feel odd because I recognized that I was neglecting my own religious holiday, Hanukkah.
While the private school I attended wasn’t outwardly religious, and Christianity wasn’t forced down my throat, we said grace at lunch and sang hymns in morning assembly.
That being said, it was a largely Christian student body — of the 100 children in my grade, I was one of only two Jewish students. So, when Christmas rolled around I just kind of followed suit and did what my friends did. But mainly, I followed suit because I didn’t really know how to celebrate Hanukkah. It’s not that Judaism was absent from my life, it’s just the traditional holidays were not something my family really celebrated.
But that may be partly due to a difference in traditions. While Christmas is rooted in folklore, Hanukkah doesn’t really have the same elements of storytelling. There isn’t an endless catalogue of songs, movies and pop culture staples; Frank Sinatra and Michael Bublé never sang about lighting the menorah and there aren’t any films about eating latkes or spinning the dreidel playing repeatedly on TV throughout December.
The Christmas tradition is infectious and widespread because of these things, which breed annual events, stories and memories.
But within the four walls of our family home, Christmas was a different experience. There was no tree, no strings of lights on the roof, no music or milk and cookies for Santa. We did, however, get together for a big family meal — courtesy of the local Chinese restaurant, the only place open on Christmas Day. What else was there to do? Everything was closed.
During Hanukkah we ramped up the celebratory mood a bit: about 30 seconds of candle lighting and a blessing sung every night for eight nights. Then there was one big family get together followed by a gift exchange.
Now that I’m older, I think back and wonder about the impact of those Christmas celebrations. When I try to recollect what I’ve done to celebrate Hanukkah over the years, all that comes to mind are Christmas activities. I almost feel that my religion was suppressed by taking part in these traditions. I spent the formative years of my life not really embracing my religion and culture. To be honest, at times I felt envious of my friends and their religion.
I question my school’s administration for failing to consider the fact that not all students celebrate Christmas. I’m not asking for a Hanukkah concert, but maybe the school shouldn’t have made me sit on Santa’s lap or dressed me up like a Christmas elf? And maybe it should have done more than just putting a tiny menorah beside the gigantic Christmas tree in the front foyer of the school.
Now in my mid-20s, I don’t feel an attachment to Hanukkah — it’s just something I do in December. That’s not to say I don’t associate myself with Judaism; I’m proud of being Jewish and I value my people’s history and traditions. However, I don’t truly celebrate my religion and I often wonder if it’s because my school raised me to celebrate someone else’s identity, and someone else’s traditions.
Over time, these traditions became normative and forced me to hide my own at the fear of being different. I’ve suppressed key parts of my identity for years.
I’m noticing how I’m much less involved in Hanukkah compared to my friends who went to Jewish schools growing up. And though I’m Jewish, during this time of year I align myself more with the Christmas-celebrating people I grew up with. I go to more Christmas parties than Hanukkah celebrations, I guzzle eggnog and I always wind up at Christmas markets and parades.
What does that make me? I guess I’m just a Jew with the Christmas spirit.