When I was in third grade, the class read a book called something like Christmas all Around the World. It taught us about Sweden’s St. Lucia Day festivities that open the Christmas season, that Santa is known as St. Nicholas in Germany, and that Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas.Oy. Small frustrations traveled to my small hands as they curled with the stress of an 8-year-old. I was the only one in the class who knew that was wrong — the only kid whose mother was a Jewish convert to Christianity. My Dad may have been a WASP, but I was still the only available defender for the 6,000-year-old faith. Later that month, surrounded by smiling Santas and cardboard Rudolphs, my mother explained the story of the Maccabees’ unlikely triumph and the reclamation of the temple to a room of milk-faced kids. We spun some dreidels, ate some latkes, and called it a day.
When you come from a mixed-faith family (or, in my case, a blenderized shaken-up one), holidays are weird. My sister and I opened Hanukkah gifts under the glow of the Christmas tree. My parents would tell us to go and choose something small and we’d shake and poke until finding the perfect pre-December 25th package. Then, we’d all light the menorah and dip our latkes in some apple sauce. Other kids didn’t understand that. The nowhere town kids where I grew up didn’t believe that I could be Jewish — my nose was too small; it’s not an ethnicity. Once I had them convinced that I could, maybe possibly be Jewish, then they asked: “Do you keep a Hanukkah bush?”
As I grew older and increasingly detached from Christianity, Judaism was a comfortable home. But the holidays continued to be confusing. Friends were flummoxed over what kind of good wishes to send in December and why I was singing along to carols on the radio. My Jewish friends rolled their eyes when I couldn’t join them for a Christmas morning movie. Then I met my husband and he got it completely. His father’s a WASP and his mother’s a Jew who converted to Christianity. It was strange and perfect when we had the new-relationship, late-night, soul-baring conversations. Because when you’re two things, it can feel like you’re neither. But everything changes with a partner.
The family stuff is still a tricky navigation. At one Christmas Eve service, attended with my Dad’s family, the preacher spoke about how the Jews failed to receive Christ and are left out of God’s grace. Awkward. Aunts on the other side give quizzical looks over why my husband never got a Bar Mitzvah or a Hebrew name. But he and I get each other.
This year, we’re gonna light the menorah, sing with Adam Sandler, wrap up some gifts in red and green paper, and eat a whole lot of cookies. But, I’m most excited about the small tree we’re going to buy from Whole Foods and plop in the middle of the table. It’s going to be our Hanukkah Bush, and it’s gonna be awesome.