When people hear that I converted to Judaism, the first question they ask is, “Don’t you miss Christmas?”
When I reply that I don’t, they usually look at me in disbelief. “Really? How could you not miss Christmas?”
The short answer is that I kept the things I liked about Christmas—baking special cookies, gathering with the family, lighting candles—and made them part of my Hanukkah celebration. I do have warm memories of Christmas as a child, but once the make-believe of childhood had vanished, Christmas left me with an emotional emptiness that I only recognized as a spiritual void once I was living a Jewish life. In fact, my fondest memory of Christmas is of the first one I did not celebrate.
I grew up in a Bavarian village in Germany where Christmas is preceded by four weeks of Advent. In our village, St. Nikolaus was celebrated on Dec. 6. On the night before, der Nikolaus would walk the streets, either in my imagination or for real (a neighbor dressed up in a red suit and white beard), with a burlap bag bulging with treats slung over his shoulder—not unlike Americans’ vision of Santa Claus. He would be trailed by Knecht Ruprecht, his evil twin, who would beat his chain against the pavement so its rattle would send shivers through the kids lying in wait. My siblings and I never fell victim to Knecht Ruprecht, but tales of near whippings and being chased down a dark street whispered among the village kids were enough to make him seem real.
Since St. Nick had come on the 6th, leaving chocolate and Lebkuchen (gingerbread)—and sometimes an onion for bad behavior—in our red plastic boots lined up on the doormat, das Christkind, the Christ child, came on Christmas Eve. After St. Nick and Knecht Ruprecht had judged us on good and bad behavior, it was the Christkind’s privilege to deliver the gifts to celebrate his own birthday. I imagined him with golden locks, wearing a gauzy blue gown, flying about on glittery wings, and plopping gifts under trees with the wave of a chubby hand. Once the Christkind had deposited the gifts, he would wind up the golden music bell that hung in the living room window. We three children would wait with our grandmother in the room my brother and I shared. Huddled in the lower bunk of our bed, we’d listen for the bell, while Oma kept us silent with a raised index finger pressed to her lips. When we finally heard the bell chiming “Ihr Kinderlein kommet …” (Children come …), we stormed out, tore open the living room door, and there the Christmas tree glowed with genuine candles, gifts were piled under the tree, and a tray heaped with Oma’s dainty cookies waited on the coffee table. I still think it borders on magic that my father could wind up the bell and, in the second or two that its mechanism took to engage, cut through the living room and hall into the kitchen and close both doors behind him, without making a sound. Some of that must have been the magic of Christmas.
Christmas was never a particularly religious affair in our house, though. The crèche my parents set by the window was our only nod to what this holiday should have been about. We were not a family to go to church; I was already in my teens when I discovered that other people went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. In fact, even to say I was raised Catholic would be a misnomer. While I did have communion when I was 8, I took it as a dress-up affair and was upset when my parents bought me a white dirndl instead of the fancy dress I wanted. For my confirmation at 13, I did try to get into the spirit. I attended prep classes, came up with sins to repent for during confession, learned the prayers, and tried to feel the Holy Spirit enter my body during the actual ceremony. It didn’t work; I was always conscious of going through the motions, without a spiritual connection.
During my teens, the weeks of Christmas anticipation evaporated too quickly after gifts had been opened; Christmas ended up being about oversleeping and overeating, loading the dishwasher and contemplating the manicure set or keyhole punch lined up among my gifts. The magic was gone and Christmas felt like a letdown: the emptiness left by the torn wrapping paper behind the couch, the crumbs on the empty cookie plate, the forlorn crèche on the windowsill.
After my father died when I was 21, we moved Christmas to Oma’s tiny apartment. My mother only joined for the first one after his death. Without my father’s expectations of family obligations, she felt she did not have to put up with the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law scuffles anymore.
While I still lived in Germany, and Oma was alive, we kids stuck with Christmas at Oma’s. We could not conceive of it otherwise, and Mom did not mind. For her, she said, Christmas had no special meaning, and she did not need Christmas to be with us. It seems she’d only gotten into the holiday spirit for us kids, so why bother now that we were grown up? But once Oma passed away, there was nobody left to host Christmas for the whole family. These days, my brother celebrates with his wife’s family, my sister with her husband and children. Mom is invited to join them but never does. And as for me, I stopped celebrating Christmas more than 20 years ago.
I converted to Judaism in 1988. I had fallen in love with a Jew and over the three years that we had dated, I had also fallen for the Jewish way of life. And that year, I converted, got married, and moved to Chicago. While my Orthodox conversion was important for having a Jewish family—we didn’t want to risk any ifs or buts about whether our children would be Jewish—I never would have converted had it not meant something to me. Jewish life is, for me, immensely practical. I did not have to wait for a holy spirit to enter my body; I could do tangible things to feel a spiritual connection, like keep a kosher home. While I do go to synagogue more often than I ever went to church, it is life at home and in the community that defines being a Jew for me.
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.
Annette Gendler is the author of Jumping Over Shadows, the true story of a German-Jewish love that overcame the burden of the Holocaust.