This year, I've been thinking about Christmas more than usual. My father died five months ago, and because he was only officially Jewish for the last ten years of his life our family celebrated a secular Christmas. For the last ten years, we were rarely together on Christmas Day but by phone, we'd fondly remember the stories of one of my father's favorite holidays of the year, telling stories of our childhood. Without him here, it feels like these stories won't be the same.
As a rabbi who works with interfaith couples, I often validate that Christmas has a lot of appeal because I know from my childhood how fun it can be with the various traditions and customs that exist. It seems everyone is getting ready to celebrate Christmas, there are lights and cookies and presents and music and--except at the mall--people seem to be happier than usual. For those who do not celebrate it, this time of year can feel isolating. And for those who, like me and my family for the last ten years and counting, no longer celebrate Christmas, there is a special type of nostalgia of knowing what we used to do, and making this day and season something different.
In that spirit, a few reflections of things I have come to realize about Christmas (and holiday traditions overall) that may be of particular interest to those feeling a little nostalgia or envy at this time of year:
Holiday traditions often transcend religion: The things that make a holiday special are rarely only religious in nature. Perhaps it is the friends who have become like our family (meaning they know how wacky we are but still share holidays with us!), the decorating of a house, the custom that becomes tradition that becomes ritual carries power. For example, we had the custom of a fancy Christmas Eve dinner at home. Each year on December 24, I often cook something a little fancy just because it's what we used to do--and is a family tradition, not a religious one. As we had close family friends with whom we used to always spend Christmas (and many a Thanksgiving too), I have made sure we have a tradition to getting together with close friends during Chanukah so our kids will also have a sense of tradition of being with friends, not just family. In Judaism, with the many home rituals that accompany holidays, we have many ways to make holiday traditions through food and community.
A little anticipation goes a long way: I believe this year Costco had Christmas decorations in the store the same week as Yom Kippur. Whether one observes the advent or not, there is a sense of anticipation and preparation for December 25. I can remember the various stages of Christmas in my childhood: getting and decorating the tree (and protecting it from the cat), pulling the ugly holiday mugs down from storage and using them for a month, decorating the house, holiday concerts, playing carols at holiday parties (great money, by the way), shopping and wrapping, etc. It was fun and everyone was in it together. Let me assure you, we can create that same anticipation for almost any holiday. As Jews, we also have our own preparatory periods. The month leading up to Rosh Hashanah is a time of spiritual reflection, and the month leading up to Passover is a time of cleaning, cooking, and yes, some spiritual reflection thrown in there too. While there is no religiously-prescribed Chanukah preparations, if we are looking to be in the "holiday spirit" we can create a sense of anticipation in our families in many parallel ways to those celebrating Christmas: decorating our homes (we put our Chanukah menorahs on display, and a few twinkle lights around the house--some of which also make an appearance in our sukkah in the fall), planning activities and extending invitations for Chanukah parties, and more.
Don't play the "Chanukah is just as cool" game: I actually believe that for interfaith families who have a Christmas celebration, whether at home or with extended family, this time of year can be easier because there isn't an envy of those celebrating Christmas. For those of us who don't have that, we might be tempted to try to make Chanukah as elaborate as what we perceive is happening around us. Yet, let's not play into that pressure. Chanukah is fundamentally about pride in being Jewish, miracles, rededication. On the list of holiday significance, it is far below many others such as our festivals and high holy days. Outside of the United States, Chanukah is much less of a deal and gift giving in particular is minimal. Make Chanukah meaningful in its own right, not a competition. Remind our children that we have a lot of holidays that are opportunities for fun, food, family, and friends. Give them the tools to explain to those who are not part of the Jewish community what Chanukah is (and is not) so they feel empowered at this time of year. Do the traditions of Chanukah, but be cautious about appropriating things that are really just "Jewish Christmas" decorations. We have actually moved some of our gift giving to our children to other holidays to remove some of the pressure at this time of year.
Embrace the generosity of the season: The end-of-year charitable contribution season and the December holiday season are times where people are in a more giving spirit overall. This is a great way to bridge the divide between "Team Chanukah" and "Team Christmas" by volunteering, donating, and otherwise giving back to our communities and helping those in need.
Whatever this time of year means for you and your family, I hope that you have a meaningful and joyous holiday season. Remember that whatever you do this year can become the stories of years to come, and all of us have traditions, joy, and meaning to share.