Though I was born Jewish, I have celebrated Christmas in addition to Hanukkah at different times in my life.
I should mention that by the words “celebrating Christmas”, I mean “celebrating the secular parts of the holiday”.
When we were kids, my sister and I got stockings every year*. We would’ve had a Christmas tree too, had our mom been able to talk our dad into it, but he wouldn’t even go for a Hanukkah bush** and so we had to settle for Aunt Jemima.
Our uncle married our aunt (duh), who was not Jewish (still isn’t), so we used to make the trek to their house for the Christmas holiday. At some point on Christmas Eve, all of us kids (my sister and me plus our four cousins) would be playing with Hot Wheels cars or doing some other activity together in the living room at the front of the house, and the adults–who were in the family room at the back of the house–would start making a racket and yelling for us to come quickly. When we ran back there, we always found a huge pile of presents on the floor and the adults would shake their heads and say, “Santa was here: you didn’t get here fast enough and you totally missed him!”
As each of us kids “aged out” and, how can I put this, had our own theories about Santa Claus, we continued to cooperate with the adults to keep the tradition going for the younger ones.
On Christmas Day we all gathered in the living room near the tree–all six kids and four adults–and opened gifts in a round-robin way, one at a time, and it seemed to take hours but we never really minded except when the adults got chatty and we had to beg them to stop talking so we could continue. (They wanted to see us open everything; otherwise we would have just plowed on through, talking be damned.)
Earlier on when my Grandparents were still alive, my parents, sister, and me used to accompany them to an annual Christmas party thrown by their very close friends. Those friends had a seemingly infinite number of extended family members and I remember that the house where the party was held seemed to overflow with people every time. It was very chaotic, and although I remember hanging out with the kids close to my age, it was the only time all year that I saw them and I wouldn’t be able to tell you any of their names now or even pick them out in pictures.
What I remember most about those parties was that Santa always made an appearance. He would enter the room, “Ho ho ho-ing” and bellowing that the children should all gather ’round for some presents.
There was a catch, though: we had to perform in order to get our present from Santa.
I hated that. Besides the fact that I didn’t like to sing–by myself–in front of adults, I felt a lot of pressure as a Jewish kid, because I didn’t know the lyrics to most of the traditional Christmas songs. That’s why, each and every year, my song of choice was “Jingle Bells”: just the first verse and the chorus. While the other kids, the ones who truly celebrated the holiday–both the religious and non-religious aspects–switched it up year after year as they found new favorite songs or learned ones that were more complex than they had sung previously, I just jingled all the way, thanked Santa for my gift, and then retreated as quickly as possible while I sighed heavily with relief that the ordeal was over for another year.
Fast forward to the year Jim and I got married: I was thrilled to have the opportunity–being married to someone who wasn’t Jewish–to have a Christmas tree. My mom managed a Hallmark store back then and started us with a fantastic collection of Keepsake Ornaments, and I made a few on my own. I sewed a tree skirt and made us beautiful stockings, too. For about seven years after our wedding day we had a tree in the house until D became a toddler and it occurred to us that we needed to make up our minds. Although deciding to stick with the traditions of one religion as we eventually did (and Jim even converted to Judaism years later) isn’t for all interfaith couples, it was right for us and our family and I’m so glad that we made the commitment.
Still, I look back on my “Christmas-celebrating days” fondly and I’m happy to have those memories. They make some pretty good stories.
*And Easter baskets on Easter.
**That said, as an adult I’m thrilled that we didn’t have a Christmas tree in the house back then.