It’s a bittersweet day when a young, Jewish girl rummages through her basement to find a fake, plastic ficus, cover it in dreidels, and request that her family put all Hanukkah gifts underneath it. I will admit that I was not a child when I did this, but rather in the shallows of adolescence though I cannot pinpoint a particular year of my life. Part of this is because I spent a large chunk of my life bumming hard about what I believed was a great deficit in the religion department; the short end of the theological stick. I spent many Christmases hurting deeply. I felt isolated and excluded, trying to retain my commitment to Judaism while quietly resenting it for placing a wall between my friends, who exchanged Christmas countdown enthusiasms, and me.
Judaism, as I only realized through a gradual process that began after my bat mitzvah, does not put a wall between others and myself. In fact, there is really no wall at all; the barrier was an illusion created by feelings of exclusion and a lack of communication. Once I was able to rid my mind of this invisible obstacles, life got a little easier.
[clickToTweet tweet=”I spent many Christmases hurting deeply. I felt isolated and excluded. #christmas #missmillmag” quote=”I spent many Christmases hurting deeply. I felt isolated and excluded.”]
Lesson #1: All Christmas traditions are beautiful, and we should talk about them
Kids aren't always the smartest. Kids assume that girls can’t do math, that boys don’t cry, and that if you’re Jewish, you can’t talk about Christmas. I thought this was true for part of my life. I’d take a back seat while my friends discussed what they wanted for Christmas, thinking that Hanukkah wasn’t so different, “But what would they care?”
It was only when I started participating in the conversation, asking what everyone was doing for the holidays, what peoples’ families did for Christmas, that I drew parallels. Just because I saw “Django Unchained” and ate Chinese food on Christmas while other people might have a Thanksgiving-style dinner, does not mean one is worth less than the other. One of my favorite things to learn from new friends is what they do for the holidays.
Lesson #2: Christmas Trees are Beautiful No Matter Your Religion
I will admit, the first time I decorated a Christmas tree, I felt a little bit guilty. I myself never had a Christmas tree, though some Jewish families do (many feel that the celebration of the holiday is more American/secular than religious). Once I asked my mom if we could put up plain silver lights outside and she said that “my grandfather would turn over in his grave,” which tends to mean “no.” I spent a great deal of time being upset that I didn’t have a Christmas tree, but eventually realized I didn’t need to have one to appreciate their loveliness tangentially.
I happen to have some wonderful friends who decorate for Christmas parties, and that includes ornamenting their trees. Knowing my love of decorating, my friends annually invite me over to help with the process. We sometimes make a day of it: I help them decorate either the big tree or a decorative mini-tree, and if I’m with my friend Jenny she might make a batch of her amazing cookies that always seem to taste their best around holiday time (though they’re always the best). Sometimes, it just takes a few simple celebratory activities to remind you that you aren’t in another world, and it’s okay to appreciate someone else’s practice with them. Not everyone will feel comfortable taking such a personal role in Christmas traditions, but it’s okay to admire your neighborhood tree on a brisk winter walk, rather than briskly walking right past it.
Lesson #3: Christmas celebrators can also love other celebrations
In middle school, I began to focus more of my attention on telling my friends how great Jewish holidays are and explaining the significance behind them. With Christmas seeming like the reigning holiday, I hadn’t even considered that there would be a desire to learn about anything else. That turned out to be wildly untrue.
My best friend in college is primarily Peruvian and Cuban, from Miami, and raised in a Catholic household. We’ve spent the past few years talking about everything, and one of our go-to topics is religion. I love to tell her about Jewish traditions and holidays, and she, in turn, loves to learn. Sure, she gets excited about Christmas, and I can get excited with her, but my own traditions are also respected. What’s even better is that she gets psyched for me. It’s a two-way street: Jews can love Christmas, and non-Jews can love Jewish holidays.
[clickToTweet tweet=”I began to focus my attention on telling my friends how great #Jewish holidays are. #missmillmag” quote=”I began to focus my attention on telling my friends how great Jewish holidays are. “]
Lesson #4: How much I appreciate my own culture and religion
As a Jewish person, I’ve experienced Hebrew school, High Holy Day services, countless Passover seders, Mitzvahs, both Bar and Bat, and most importantly, the teachings of goodness and charity I’ve been taught through it all. Interestingly enough, I believe that the lessons of tolerance engrained in me from Jewish teachings allowed me to overcome my own feelings of jealousy, in order to learn about others’ traditions and celebrate for them, rather than worship with them.
I’ll plan for movies and Chinese food again this year, and send my friends “Merry Christmas!” texts and calls. I’m sure that they’ll wish me Happy Hanukkah when the time comes. Regardless of all the trees and lights, I know that I can spend the day with my beautiful family to appreciate the wonderful things that I have and the beauty of the winter season. That is what the holidays are about, after all.