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The Thin Red-and-Green Line

For a Jewish convert, how much Christmas is too much?

Leigh McMullan Abramson
December 22, 2014

A few years ago, shortly before getting married, I converted to Judaism. Never much of a practicing Episcopalian, most of the time I have little trouble feeling Jewish. I can bake a challah that would make any bubbe proud. I know my way around brises and bar mitzvahs. I can hora with the best of them.

But this most wonderful time of year gives me trouble; I still love Christmas.

It’s not the religious aspects of the holiday I long for, but all the trappings of the season. When the calendar turns to December, my urge to smell gingerbread sends me hunting for my rolling pin. I walk around humming “Once in Royal David’s City,” a melody that even in memory gives me chills. Drinking eggnog in a snowflake sweater just feels so right.

My husband, who’s from a Reform family, supports my Christmas lust to a point, but there’s a red-and-green line we’re always negotiating. We delicately dance around the question of how much Christmas is too much Christmas when you’re Jewish.

Take the issue of seasonal greenery. Though I experience tree-envy when I spy the lights twinkling through our neighbors’ windows, I know it’s not happening.

“I can’t be a Jew with a tree,” says my husband. And I get it.

A wreath is a real possibility, though I might feel awkward having my in-laws over with a door that’s all ‘Hello Christmas’ when we haven’t yet put up a mezuzah. A few tastefully placed bows of evergreen seem to strike the right balance of secular yet festive.

There’s no formula to the resolutions of these Christmas questions, just some gut feeling of what feels too, well, Christian-y. Baking cookies in the shape of angels and snowmen seems kosher, but my childhood nativity set should probably stay packed in the closet. Our three-month-old can have a stocking hung at my parents’ house, but dressing him up as a tiny Santa? Not so much.

“We have to make sure he knows Hanukkah is cool, too,” my husband reminds me about our son, who we plan to raise Jewish.

I know that many converts give up Christmas–full stop–in order to avoid sending mixed signals to their children. And maybe there is a Christmas threshold, a point at which too many carols and candy canes could leave my son baffled about his family’s religious identity.

But to be honest, on the list of things I do that may send my child to therapy, causing Christmastime confusion ranks pretty low, well beyond writing about my bikini waxes or hissing, ‘Did you Purell?’ at anyone who comes within 20 feet of him.

Part of my inability to quit Christmas is tied to a major question: Exactly how Jewish am I? How much of my background must I give up and how much do I get to bring along?

And in marrying me and into my non-Jewish family, my husband has had to make shifts of his own, like giving up the extreme convenience of flying on Christmas and having a wife who once unthinkingly whipped out Tic Tacs during Kol Nidre.

My husband and I may never fully agree on where to draw the red-and-green line. But in coming up with our own idiosyncratic solutions—the gingerbread house iced in white and baby blue, the tradition of giving Christmas pajamas on the last night of Hanukkah—each December we can confirm that we’re not very far apart at all.

Leigh McMullan Abramson is a freelance writer living in New York City.