When I was in the sixth grade, my best friend Allison invited me over to help decorate her family’s Christmas tree. I was hesitant to ask my parents. We were traditional Jews; in our home, I’d get a dirty look when I’d put a slice of cheese on my veggie burger, or ask to skip Shabbat dinner so I could have a sleepover. We were not the type of Jews who celebrated Christmas.
Although they had reservations, eventually my parents said yes, with the understanding that this was Allison’s holiday, not ours; it helped that it was more about decorating a tree, rather than going to church. So, starting that year, I would join Allison and her mother in their apartment as we’d order chicken Parmesan heroes, and blast Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” as we’d hang red and silver glittery ornaments on their plastic Christmas tree. As we got older and I moved out of Brooklyn for college in the late 1990s, our tree-decorating parties turned into me attending her Italian American family’s Christmas Eve dinners. I’d gather around the table with Allison, her mother, grandparents, uncles, and cousins, and we’d indulge in pasta and seafood salad, and hear stories about our Brooklyn neighborhood from before our time.
Allison’s grandmother was a traditional yet innovative chef. She took joy in cooking her old Italian family recipes every Christmas. But she wanted to make sure I felt welcome, so she would make me a Jewish food every year. One year she baked me a fresh challah, another year she made hamantaschen. I had to explain to her that these were foods for specific Jewish holidays, none of which was being celebrated at that moment. I told her I appreciated the gesture, but preferred her delicious eggplant Parmesan and that I looked forward to this night each year. Nevertheless, I ate her Jewish food and smiled.
These Christmas experiences weren’t particularly religious. I can’t remember a time we spoke about God, or Jesus. And if Allison and her family were headed to midnight Mass, I’d go home after dinner, full and satisfied.
Allison also joined my family for Jewish holidays: As the years went on, it became common for her to come to our family’s Shabbat dinners, and Passover Seders. We loved sharing in each other’s families, and traditions.
I’ve joined in on Allison’s family’s Christmas celebration almost every year for the last 30. If travel plans ever came up, I’d purposely schedule to leave Christmas day so that I didn’t miss a year. Then eventually I brought my husband, then our daughter, and soon I’ll bring our 6-month-old son.
It never made me want to stray from my religion or culture; instead, it opened my eyes to other people’s religion and culture. When I was younger, I didn’t come home asking my family if we could celebrate Christmas, or bring a Christmas tree into our home as they may have feared—because I did celebrate it, and I did get to decorate a tree, at Allison’s. It was her holiday, and I felt thankful to be included.
Our housecleaner recently texted me saying she noticed we don’t have a Christmas tree in our home. “Would you like me to get you one and set it up? My treat!” she asked.
“No, but thank you for offering,” I quickly typed. “We’re Jewish, and we don’t celebrate Christmas at our home.”
And then earlier this month, on the sixth night of Hanukkah, our landlord knocked on our door and asked my husband and me if our 2 1/2-year-old daughter would like to decorate an ornament to hang on our building’s Christmas tree. I hesitated. Would this confuse her?
I realized that while I had become completely comfortable with how we celebrate our friends’ holidays, this probably would need some explanation for our children.
My husband and I are both Jewish, and one of our joys of parenthood is having fun with our Jewish culture and traditions. Our daughter loves Hanukkah, and we explain to her that some other families celebrate different holidays. When we’re watching television and a Christmas commercial comes on, she proudly yells, “I have Hanukkah!” As she’s nodding off to sleep, we hear her adorable little voice singing the words to “Sevivon Sov Sov.” She can’t wait to eat challah on Fridays, and is elated to see the rabbi at her preschool show them the Torah. We make sure she’s excited about our culture, and is included in every blessing and tradition we make. So, although she’s so young, I’m pretty confident our daughter is very well aware that we’re Jewish.
“No, this wouldn’t confuse our daughter,” I thought to myself while standing at my door staring blankly at our landlord. This was her “Allison” moment. We love celebrating other cultures, so why would this be any different?
“Sure!” I said, without batting an eye. “We’ll make an ornament tonight.” And so we sat together that evening, drawing a red heart with silver and pink glitter stickers. We wrote “Happy Holidays. Love, The Carters” before taping a string to our homemade ornament. As we drew and glued together, I explained what an ornament was, that some of our neighbors celebrate Christmas, and how we’d like to contribute to their festivities.
“Will they have Hanukkah with us?” our very curious daughter asked. “Yes!” I said, and quickly texted our neighbors inviting them to join us in a candle-lighting later that weekend. On the final night of Hanukkah, we huddled outside with our neighbors from all religions and nationalities, as we handed out dreidels and gelt, and lit all eight Hanukkah candles.
As Jewish parents in America, a lot of us face the Christmas predicament every year. Will my child be too exposed to Christmas? Will they feel jealous of their non-Jewish friends because we don’t get to decorate our homes with colorful lights? Or because we don’t have Santa Claus leaving endless presents under the ornate Christmas trees in our homes?
From my experience, celebrating my friend’s holiday with her and her family deepened our friendship and made us close in a way I don’t feel with others. I feel lucky and thankful that my parents drew clear boundaries for me, ensuring I knew what our family’s traditions were, but also allowing me to celebrate my friends’ holidays with them.
Do I occasionally indulge in a good viewing of Love Actually? Of course. But nothing in our home signifies Christmas, and we still have no plans to bring a Christmas tree into our home. We’re Jewish, there’s no doubt about it. But we do help other people celebrate their holidays. It opens up an exchange, where we can invite other people to celebrate our Jewish traditions with us.
Our daughter doesn’t yet understand how many different types of people, religions, and cultures there are in the world, or even in our neighborhood in Brooklyn. But we’ll continue to teach her, and inspire her to be curious about our friends’ traditions. And when she meets her Allison, I will proudly encourage her to become part of their family traditions, join in on their celebrations, and decorate their Christmas tree. I believe that won’t take away from the sense of Judaism we’re trying to instill in our children—it will only strengthen it.
Jamie Betesh Carter is a researcher, writer, and mother living in Brooklyn.