Giving Up Christmas
As a convert, I don’t feel nostalgic about Christmas—I’ve discovered the magic of Hanukkah
Our first winter in Chicago marked the first Christmas I did not celebrate. My husband had volunteered for the hospital night shift on Dec. 24. Our student housing building was empty; everyone had gone home for the holidays. Christmas Eve found me alone, stretched out on our neighbors’ couch. We were feeding their cats and thus had free use of their living room and TV. I lay there wrapped in a blanket and watched It’s a Wonderful Life. I had a pot of tea and some of Oma’s cookies, which she sent me from Germany. It was snowing outside, and the building was quiet. I was all by myself. No family, no gifts, no Christkind or St. Nick or Santa Claus.
It was bliss.
That was also the first year I celebrated Hanukkah. While my husband brought traditions with him about how holidays like Passover and Rosh Hashanah were to be celebrated, Hanukkah was a holiday we had to discover together. His family, traditional but not religious, had barely kindled Hanukkah lights when he was a child.
I never had the urge to recreate the magic of my childhood Christmases for our three children, who are now all in their teens. Maybe because it was so devoid of spiritual content for me that the emptiness it left overpowered any possible nostalgia. Or maybe because the magic of candles, cookies, and gifts can easily be transferred to Hanukkah.
Oma passed away four years after I moved to the States, so her trademark Christmas cookies no longer arrive in their shoebox package, cushioned with tissue paper. I do spend one afternoon with my kids cutting sugar cookie dough, but into the shapes of dreidels, menorahs, and Maccabees. I cherish that each evening of Hanukkah, the five of us gather in the living room to light the candles and spend half an hour watching the flames flicker. It is something we rarely do: gather in the living room, just to be together. The kids send dreidels knocking about on the hardwood floor and wrestle each other for another coin of chocolate gelt, and my husband and I look on happily. Thankfully, that magic of Hanukkah lasts for eight days, not just one night. If one night is too harried, there’s always another one to invoke it again. Thankfully, too, there aren’t weeks of hustle and bustle that lead up to it, except one evening of grating potatoes and frying latkes—those 30 minutes are all there is to it.
Gone then, for me, is the awkwardness of Christmas. What remains is the exhilaration of holiday celebration and the homage to friends and family. What came in its stead are quiet winter days, free of obligations; those come later in the Jewish calendar, when I turn my kitchen and pantry upside down for Passover. But that’s another holiday, and another story.
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