I am a Jew. Sort of. That is to say that my mother is ethnically Jewish and I was raised to say that I am Jewish. The building where I associated religiously as a child was a synagogue and the process of prayer I learned was in that same building. At home we celebrated Christian holidays with more enthusiasm, more opulence and better decorations that our Christian neighbors. We acknowledged the existence of Jewish holidays and then moved on. Today I center my spiritual life around the principals of Reform Judaism, I acknowledge that 23andMe has determined that I am somewhere between 40 and 45% Ashkenazi, and the holidays that matter in our home are Jewish (though not all of them, for goodness sake there are just a ton!).
And yet. I grew up with a Christmas tree and Christmas presents and Christmas dinner, as did my husband. We have purchased ornaments from our travels designed for an evergreen shrubbery brought into the home that memorialize important events for our family, that are meaningful to our story and that bind us together through shared experience. Tis the season for what is referred to as the December Dilemma for Jewish families, how to feel a part of while maintaining the identity that keeps you apart. How to celebrate the season without losing the core values that make you part of who you are.
Quick diversion to get the religious stuff out of the way: I have absolutely nothing against Jesus, I like Jesus, a lot. I am totally down with the vast majority of the preaching that is attributed to him, indeed that is pretty much what Reform Judaism is – doing it the way Jesus said it should be done. I don’t believe that Jesus is going to save me, I believe that it is our job to save each other, but otherwise I am happy to celebrate the guy with the great message. So this just to say that the challenge of Christmas for me is not a challenge with Jesus or God or pagans or the celebration of the solstice or whatnot, it is just the challenge of the great cultural melting pot that is America, and increasingly the world.
So, Jewish family, Jewish children, lots of excitement about Hanukkah, but also Christmas and Santa and the magic of that experience and we tried to do both for a few years when the kids were young. Hooey boy was that a mess! First of all way too many presents, then there was too much family expectations to manage about who went where when, then there was the increasing problem of matching spiritual practice to cultural experience and what were the kids getting excited about and what happened to celebrating holidays for the meaning. Christmas was out, Santa was done. We were sad (by we I mean my husband and I, the kids were not part of the decision making at this stage). We wanted magic, and special, and glee for our holiday so we did what you always do when you want something you don’t have, you make it up. Thus, Hanukkah Herschel was born.
Most of the time Hanukkah and Christmas fall nearish to each other. Enough so that you are really celebrating the “holiday season” more than just a single holiday isolated and apart from its friends. When this happens we put up our Hanukkah bush and often have a holiday party that falls on one of the eight nights. We eat latkes and jelly donuts, listen to songs of joy, and perform the rites of a yankee swap with the friends we have gathered close. Celebrating with light and laughter in a dark time of year and counting our blessings. These things are good no matter what tradition they come from. If the timing is right and the bush is up and decorated and the stockings are hung we will place Hanukkah gifts under our tree and open our stockings on the Shabbat the falls over the holiday, calling them Shabbanukkah Stockings. And then there is the magic that happens: on one night of Hanukkah, you never know which, a wonderful creature named Hanukkah Herschel sneaks into your home and leaves clues all about, taking you on a scavenger hunt, challenging you with riddles and tricks, making you work for the special thing that will surprise and delight when it is discovered!
You don’t have to leave cookies or candy for Herschel since you are never quite sure when he is coming. We have not yet determined how he travels, but we are guessing it is not by sleigh and reindeer. Neither do we understand how he gets in the house since it is clear he is not just dropping down the chimney and leaving gifts by the fireplace. We have never seen Herschel and don’t know if he has help or if he is working his magic all alone. Many mysteries remain about the man and his holiday surprises.
I have many friends who are Jewish who don’t understand why we do the things we do in our house at this time of year. I don’t always understand what we do since we are making it up as we go along. I understand that everyone needs joy and love and laughter, and that magic is important too. I understand that we are, most of us, not just one thing, we are a blend of many traditions and histories and stories and I don’t think that we should have to pick. I don’t think things have to be just one way, at least not when you get to make it up however you want!