Christmas has always proposed a bit of a challenge for me, as it does for many Jews. It’s tough to take part, as it is a religious holiday from a religion that I am not a member. But it has transcended religion in this country and has become part of our culture.
When people say, “Merry Christmas” to me, I know they do so as a way of saying, “Hello, nice to see you. Hope you’re enjoying this time of year” and not as an inquiry as to my religious beliefs. At its most basic, it’s a spirit of generosity, inclusion and giving. I don’t have to be Christian to believe in those values.
I found my way into Christmas as I do so many other celebrations, with food. Although we’re not Irish, my mother always made Corned Beef and Cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day, so why not enjoy a Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve? Though the food may have roots in tradition, my non-Jewish friends enjoy potato pancakes without questioning their faith, and so I enjoy 7 courses of fish, or better yet a fabulous bouillabaisse on Christmas Eve.
Though I don’t have a Christmas tree in my house, I enjoyed trees at my grandmother’s house growing up (my mother’s relatives are Protestant, and my mom converted to Judaism after college). It was a holiday loophole I always enjoyed as a child: we’re Jewish at our house, with latkes and a menorah, but we can enjoy Christmas at Grandma, Grandpa, and our Aunties' homes, and so let’s!
Celebrating in this way gave me a sense of who I am and knowledge that even though I may be different from my own family members, there’s always an open chair at Christmas dinner, and a similar one if someone would like to come and spin the dreidel.
If you think about it through the lens of food, Chinese people enjoy Italian food and Irish people enjoy Thai food. It’s a pleasure to share one’s heritage with those who aren't part of it, and it’s a pleasure to learn about another person’s customs. Even though we are not of the culture, we can enjoy it and celebrate it.
But these days, with three babies under 2, and grandparents who've passed away, there are fewer places to visit, and travel is more difficult. And although I can cook the food, this year I was at a loss for where I could experience the “Christmas spirit” of generosity, inclusion of giving. On Christmas Eve, everyone likes to have a place to go to celebrate, even those who are not part of the religion.
This year, an opportunity fell into my lap that just feels so right. I received an email asking for volunteers to spend Christmas Eve at a homeless shelter. To spend time together, play games and sing songs.
That seemed like such a wonderful idea to me: what could be better on Christmas Eve, for this Jewish person, then spending time knee-deep in Christmas spirit?
I am looking forward to this year’s celebration of Christmas Eve, and hope that it becomes a new tradition for my family. I’ll bring plenty of donuts, a traditional Chanukah treat.