Two days ago it was Christmas. I have struggled with my feelings on Christmas since I was a teenager. I think I finally understand why. Some years it just feels plain lonely.
I think it started because of a question I have been asked over and over since I was a kid. The question was asked in all kinds of different ways, but it always felt like it came down to an either/or. “Do you celebrate Hanukkah or do you celebrate Christmas?” The struggle was with whatever it was that was deeply ingrained into the people who were asking the question. But I was not raised in an either/or home. I am an and.
My mother was raised in a Christian home in a small town in Wyoming called Saratoga. My father was raised in a Jewish home in Denver, Colorado. When my parents met as freshman at Colorado State University, my father explained to my mother what being Jewish meant to him. As I recall her saying it, it was her first exposure to a Jew in the flesh. After my parents got married my mother went through a rigorous conversion process and she committed to raising me and my brother Jewish. That’s exactly what they did. I was brought up at Temple Emanuel, the same Denver synagogue my father’s family had been members of for generations before. It gave me a good solid foundation for my life. I am Jewish.
I grew up celebrating Hanukkah at home and Christmas at my grandparent’s home in Saratoga. I lit the menorah each of the eight nights of Hanukkah and got a gift and I tore open presents Christmas morning sitting on the floor around a lit up tree with my cousins. I loved it. I had the best of both worlds. These people were all my family. It didn’t matter that we belonged to different houses of worship. It was about family. It was about love.
But as a teenager the holidays seemed to become complicated for my family. My Jewish grandfather died when I was 14. My Christian grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was 15 and my Christian grandmother became weak and eventually sick caring for him. My family still celebrated Hanukkah, but Christmas was disrupted. We no longer went to my grandparents’ house for Christmas. Reflecting back on it now, this was about the time I became aware that my Jewish grandmother asked my mom if her gifts for me and my brother would be Hanukkah gifts or Christmas gifts. I don’t know if she was confused or just passive aggressive because I never asked her and I wasn’t close enough to anyway, but I do think she was raised in an either/or kind of family. I think a lot of our parents were raised either/or.
I have always loved the lights during the winter holidays. I loved lighting the menorah and I loved all of the houses decorated in our neighborhood. Everything felt joyful and bright. At some point in my young years I became aware that hanging lights on your house if you were Jewish was not okay with some Jews. This always blew my mind. Why were Jews anti-joy? I remember the year I decided to hang holiday lights on our house when my kids were still little and I’ve never looked back. I do it every year. There have been Jewish people in my life who have felt uncomfortable with my lights. I figure they will get over it or they won’t. That’s their issue. They’re either/or.
From my perspective, the holidays are hard in some way for almost every adult I know. And for a lot of our kids. These holidays are challenging for us, for sure. And we really need the joy.
So let there be light.