It’s the first night of Chanukah and here I am — a rabbi — listening to Christmas music. I secretly love it. I know I’m not the only one, and I hope your heart will be open to hear why.
We spent most of this past week getting ready for Chanukah in my house. My kids love it when I bring up the three gigantic plastic Chanukah bins from the basement. As I peak through the translucent containers, I see silver and blue glam everywhere. I would never dare tell my children, but I loathe these bins, mainly because it means a lot of tape all over my walls. There goes my paint.
My kids wanted to get outdoor Chanukah decorations this year. They’d kill to have the large blow-up lawn ornaments — Jewishly themed, to match the grandeur of their Christmas counterparts. And maybe we would even put blue and white twinkle lights all over our house? At least this year, though, I’m not giving in. First, I don’t love the way Chanukah — much like Christmas — has become commercialized. Second, it honestly sounds like so much work. And third, I truly have concerns about drawing attention to my very Jewish home in a way that might tempt anti-Semitism (a sad thought given that it is a mitzvah to publicize the miracle of Chanukah so all can see).
But honestly, when I examine myself a little deeper, I’m aware of a truth behind my feelings: outdoor Chanukah decorations seem so Christmas-y.
(That being said, please note: I reserve the right to change my mind about the lawn ornaments for the sake of my children’s joy. I hope you understand. And let’s face it, there is clearly absolutely nothing wrong with a giant dreidel on your lawn. I kinda love it.)
Although the outside of my home does not scream “Chanukah,” inside our home, it is abundantly clear what time of year it is. We have “Happy Chanukah ” banners draped in almost every room, often hung so low I need to duck under them. Our table is set with menorah and gelt decorations. We can’t wait to use our new ceramic dreidel bowls for our latke applesauce, alongside our gold-trimmed dreidel salt and pepper shakers. I have enough Chanukah kitchen towels that I could go through two a day and still have leftovers without doing laundry. I’m sitting here wearing one of my gazillion ugly Chanukah sweaters. But as I look across the blue-and-white table, now with brand-new textured blue chair covers (darn it, now you know my secret!), I take in the beautiful sounds around me, streaming from Alexa: “Deck the halls with boughs of holly…fa la la la la, la la la la…”
Instantly, I am brought back to my childhood.
I was raised in an area where we were the only practicing Jewish family. We went to public school and my parents — God bless them — traveled about two and a half hours in total each week to take us to Hebrew school three times, round-trip. We were as active in the synagogue as a family could possibly be, but we were still living in a school district without anyone else like us.
I remember being in many children’s choirs. I practiced dozens of Christmas songs each year. Every once in a while, a Jewish song would be on the set list, and I was consulted about how to read the Hebrew words. One year, we even sang a Hebrew song in December that was more appropriate for Passover. I didn’t have the heart to say anything because I so appreciated the gesture. I do, however, remember sharing with my choir director, “I don’t really feel comfortable singing some of these Christmas songs. I’m Jewish.” She would tell me that it wasn’t about the words. Instead, I should focus on the music.
And here I am.
“’Tis the season to be jolly…fa la la la la, la la la la…”
Christmas music doesn’t threaten me as a Jew. It lifts my spirits.
It brings me back to the days I visited Aunt Barbara and Uncle Don and delivered them Christmas presents. Aunt Barbara was my childhood babysitter and both she and Uncle Don became like family to us — their whole family, actually. Although we would never have a tree in our home, hearing Christmas music brings back fond memories of decorating their Christmas tree and putting my favorite ornament on it: the beaded strawberry. They would always reserve it for me. When Aunt Barbara was in her last days, suffering from cancer, I remember making a homemade card for her, telling her how much she meant to me. I decorated the front of the card with strawberries. My how I miss her, especially around this time of year.
I remember spending Christmas Eve at my actual aunt and uncle’s house — a half-Jewish family. After eating way too much food and watching the adults probably drink too much booze, we would all — my siblings and my cousins — descend to the basement, where Uncle Bobby would lead us in Christmas carols on an automatic piano. I will never forget the smile on his face as he would pretend he was playing. When I was a small kid, I thought he was. What I would give for one more basement Christmas-caroling session with my Uncle Bobby. May he rest in peace.
I remember twirling baton in Christmas parades, literally wearing tinsel on my earmuffs and tossing my baton to the tune of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” I remember sitting on Santa’s lap many times. (Why does he always look so different?) I remember delivering beautiful red poinsettias to my neighbors for Christmas, ones that we bought from the choir fundraiser. I remember receiving so many presents — the majority of them, actually — wrapped in Christmas paper. It didn’t upset me. It just taught me to be thrifty. Christmas paper was cheaper than Chanukah gift wrap, especially when it was so hard to come by in my area.
For my senior year of high school, I remember my mother making me an elf costume, including white fake-fur and jingling bells at the bottom. She did this so I could join the “elf squad,” delivering Christmas treats to other students and teachers for the holidays. For more than six straight years, I would spend hours in my bedroom making hundreds of candy-cane reindeer, complete with brown, fuzzy pipe-cleaner antlers; googly eyes; a beaded red nose; and a bell tied on with sparkly green ribbon. I preferred using the rainbow candy canes; I loved the cherry flavor.
I loved spreading joy, even if that meant giving others small gifts that reflected their traditions. In my high school yearbook, I wrote that after graduation one of my goals was to spread candy-cane reindeer throughout the world. I gave up at some point in my college years, maybe because I hated being burnt by the hot glue gun — but certainly not because it dampened my Chanukah spirit.
Instead of fulfilling that dream, I became a rabbi. And my elf outfit? It now makes a great Purim costume.
As a rabbi, I feel like I’m supposed to be repulsed by anything Christmas. And yet, here I am soaking up Christmas carols.
Don’t get me wrong. Christian hegemony is real in our country, and it is wrapped up in a whole host of other challenges for people like me. It can be isolating to be a Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu person (among so many other minorities) who live in a world where Christmas is at the center of our December celebrations. It can be painful to some to hear “Merry Christmas” all the time and constantly be reminded that you are an other. I see you.
I’m also not advocating that Jews put up Christmas trees. I’m not suggesting that we can haphazardly embrace a holiday or a religion with theological roots very different from our own, while still being committed to our tradition. Or that Jewish parents shouldn’t lobby to make their children’s public schools more inclusive of students of all faiths. I am involved in conversations with public school officials about important issues such as this for members of my community.
I’m just sharing how my experience with Christmas, as a Jew, has been mostly positive.
Christmas has allowed me to make deep connections with loved ones who were part of my family. It was my way of recognizing a deep part of who they were, even if it wasn’t who I was. Christmas represented togetherness, kindness, and love. I believe it is those universal values that speak so deeply to me.
And then there is the obvious to me: Christmas has helped shape me into the Jew I am today.
My parents did everything they could to raise us as strongly Jewish-identified people. And they made an important choice that I don’t think I ever appreciated until now. Instead of preventing me from participating in everything that was going on in the world around me in December, they allowed me to take it all in, to learn from others, to be with others, while still rooting myself in my own faith. The alternative was to tell me that I couldn’t do nearly anything that was happening around me because I was Jewish. Would that make me resent Judaism? Who knows where I would be today if that was the case.
I believe you can be deeply Jewish and appreciate the joy that Christmastime offers to so many others, without pushing Christmas aside. It’s okay, I believe, to listen to music of other faiths and to marvel at its splendor without believing in every word of those songs. (I feel this happens all the time in our own davening spaces, no?) While there are times when we can use our voices to create inclusive communities, at other times we exude Jewish confidence and pride when we can look at Christmas and let others do their thing without feeling threatened.
I recognize that in saying this, I speak from a place of privilege. To be fair, I’m raising my kids solely Jewish. I’m sending them to a full-time Jewish day school. I’m a rabbi, for crying out loud. Maybe my Christmas views would be different if my family wasn’t totally enveloped by our Jewish faith at every turn and so secure in who we are. Indeed, I have no plans to do anything to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus.
But I appreciate that others do.
Christmas doesn’t threaten me or make me pull back. Instead, it makes me lean in. It enhances my life with the joyful memories of my childhood. And davka — furthermore — it was likely because I was raised in a world where Christmas was everywhere that made me more strongly identify who I was as a Jew. My parents helped me give goody bags of gelt and dreidels to all my classmates for Chanukah , as well as Pesach treats for Passover. In turn, my public school teachers gave me some time during class to share more about the holidays and customs. During our Holocaust curriculum, I was asked to share my thoughts, as a Jew, on this dreadful time in our people’s history. I became a teacher of the Jewish tradition at a very young age. And so I cannot help but ask…
Am I rabbi, a teacher of Judaism now, in part, because of the Christmas culture in which I was raised?
And so, I will continue to joyfully smile when a grocery cashier wishes me a “Merry Christmas,” even if I respond with: “Happy Holidays.” I will continue to listen to Christmas music on Alexa and recall when I originally heard these songs — on vinyl records at Aunt Barbara and Uncle Don’s and on the automatic piano with Uncle Bobby. And maybe someday, once again, I’ll pick up my hot glue gun and fulfill my high school dream of spreading the joy of candy-cane reindeer throughout the world. I think our world could use a little of that joy these days.
Until then, as I spin the dreidel and soak up my pores with latke grease, I will celebrate the miracles of our people and spread the joyous light of Chanukah to others around me. But in the background, I will also enjoy those special Christmas memories in my heart and how much those memories have deeply shaped the Jew — and rabbi — I am today.