Friday, December 20, 2013

The Little Drummer Goy

'Why are we smiling again?' "Dunno, but you won't be smiling when you see what I stuffed your stocking with."

To totally flaunt my ignorance here, I did not know that Jews did not celebrate Christmas for basically half my life. It’s not that my parents tried NOT to expose me Judaism growing up in Springfield, Ohio. In the same way that I would not hear of pho for years to come, there was simply nothing of the sort to expose me TO. No temples, no menorahs or kosher grocers. Think Springsteen’s Your Hometown; it was like The Town that Judaism Forgot.

It wasn’t until several years of assimilating that I learned what adorns a seder plate, what the high holidays are (hint: Hannukah is not one) and what a bris is (though I could have done without that one). I learned by straight-up infiltration. I married in.

To say my wife was brought up conservatively would be, well, conservative. My in-laws are lovely people. Very lovely, very observant Jewish people. They walk to temple on Saturdays and forgo electricity and cell phones and other conveniences. Their house itself was like an homage to Judaism: bookshelves full of Judaica, Kiddush cups and Shabbat candle holders on display, mezzuzahs on every threshold, and art from or of The Holy Land.

Having been raised in this environment, it should come as no surprise that my wife has no love lost for Christmas. She hates peppermint stick ice cream, which is odd because it’s ICE CREAM. She had never seen A Christmas Story, she only knows the Batmas Smells version of Jingle Bells, she never had a tree ornament or a stocking to hang, and never got anywhere close to figgy pudding. And the coup d’grace? She finds colored lights to be just plain “tacky.” Ouch.

She helped me get it, though, the Jewish perspective. Christmas is brash and annoying and all up in your mug before the Halloween candy is even gobbled up. Trying to avoid Christmas is like trying to avoid chlorine in a hot tub. Christmas is as about as subtle as a wrecking ball smashing a cherry red Ferrari. On fire.

But maybe I got it hammered in there a little too well. Over the years, I started to question my own loyalties and motivations. I’m not in it for the baby Jesus, so what exactly AM I celebrating? Gratuitous interior lighting? The awesome music? I was beginning to internalize her Grinchy-ness. I had become a Christmas apologist.

Now, with Jewish kids asking more than four questions, I feel doubly as though I have to justify, or at least clarify, my fandom of Christmas. And it’s this: I CAN’T fully explain it, and I’m finally okay with that. It’s mostly fuzzy nostalgia and a warm feeling I get, but I love the whole corny mess of it, and I’m not ashamed. I love picking out a big mother tree and adding new ornaments to it every year. I love stuffing stockings and watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation again. I love that people give and share and smile just a little extra. I love peppermint stick ice cream, damnit. I crank Wham’s Last Christmas every time it comes on. And I’m in no way ashamed of that, either.

Christmas has always been about family and creating traditions. I realize now that that is what was missing in those B.C. (before children) years and why we struggled to make it our own. I had my own ideations of traditions that I simply tried to impose rather than share. She was largely uninvested and it was my fault. Let's just say I was hanging my own mistletoe, so to speak.

So how do you create family traditions? You do them. You try lots of things, keep the ones you like. Like the rest of parenting, it’s trial and error. This year we implemented a new tradition (suggested to us by a rabbi, oddly enough) of baking gingerbread men to put on the tree. Bub got up on his chair and helped me make the dough. Mommy rolled it out, poked holes for the string and put them in the oven. When they came out, Mommy strung them, and Bub got up on his chair and helped me hang them.

And in doing this it dawned on me that traditions are not about repeated acts. We always do this, or we have to do that. They are about the process behind those acts.

Growing up Jewish, it’s impossible to say what my kids will make of Christmas over the years. My brother and I grew up with the same Christmases and he is very ehhhhhh about it. But love it or hate it, celebrate it with their own families or not, I can only hope they look back at their own with that same warm feeling that I do, and create their own traditions as they see fit.


  1. My parents divorced early in my life, and my dad was Jewish, but always celebrated Christmas. We did some Hebrew things like the occasional trip to temple, and Hanukkah. About 15 years ago, after being exposed to "real" jews in college, I asked him how he explained the fact that we celebrated Christmas, even before he married my step-mom (a 6 year window between divorce and remarriage). He had the best answer, "I told you we were celebrating the birthday of the most popular Jew in history"