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The Comfort of Family Traditions When It Comes to "The Holidays"

The Comfort of Family Traditions When It Comes to "The Holidays"

Candles burning in a hanukkiah

I'm excited that I’m going home and will be with my family for the holidays, but I’m also a little anxious. This will be my first Christmas as a Jew. I officially chose Judaism this year, converting from the Lutheran faith in which I was raised.

I’m still working through this major change in observance, which is a big part of what’s making me nervous. I certainly have no regrets about how I was raised or my decision to express my faith through Judaism, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t just a little bit sad. For a long time, I felt I could celebrate both holidays with a full heart, participating fully in the meaning of both Hanukkah and Christmas. After all, I was a kid, so why not?

Every year, my family sets up the Christmas tree in the living room and the menorah and dreidel piñata (my dad is from Miami) in the dining room. My whole life, my dad has been insistent that, although we celebrate both holidays as a family, we keep them physically separate, even if only by 15 feet. It was important to both parents that we understand my mom’s Christian traditions and my dad’s Jewish ones – that we respect them both, but that we also are aware of the differences in the celebrations.

Growing up, I had several friends with Catholic moms and Jewish dads, and it seems all our families did things a bit differently. Some people decorated their tree with dreidel ornaments and topped it with a Star of David. Others celebrated one holiday, but not the other. Still others celebrated both haphazardly, or not at all.

This year, I won’t be able to do that. On December 24th, I’ll be lighting the first candle in the hanukkiah (the Hanukkah menorah). For the first time, I won’t be “observing” Christmas Eve. It is, in some ways, a loss – but it’s also a growing up. Like much else in life, it is a consequence of a choice I made. I chose to be Jewish, which means leaving behind the anticipation that Christians feel on Christmas Eve.

Recently, when actress Natalie Portman joked, to a fair amount of scorn, that every Jewish person secretly wishes just a little bit for a Christmas tree, I smiled. I’m incredibly relieved that although I am privileged to embrace Judaism fully, I also will be home with a Christmas tree in the family room. I understand that her remarks might have been a bit off-color, but I also know that there are many Jews like me – Jews who do long for the comfort of a different tradition. In my family, part of that comfort comes from an annual shouting match as we haul the tree clumsily from the attic, test a gazillion strands of lights – none of which work – and, finally, try to convince the dog to stop pulling off the low-hanging ornaments.

It is a gift that this year, the first night of Hanukkah also is Christmas Eve. In my house, we’ll open our Hanukkah gift – always a pair of socks – and we’ll say the blessings over the candles. (We don’t sing them; no one in my family can carry a tune!) And, of course, we’ll eat – plenty of latkes and brisket.

When my sister and I go to sleep, our parents will stay up to stuff everyone’s Santa stockings – the ones my great-aunt knitted for each of us when we were born. When we wake up the next morning, we’ll sit around the Christmas tree, eat breakfast, and open presents. At night, we’ll walk into the next room to light the Hanukkah candles.

Yes, there is great comfort in all my family’s traditions.

Though my celebration this year will be through a solely Jewish lens, I recognize that my family will celebrate both holidays. Although everyone celebrates holidays in different ways, I’m sure glad my family is keeping our traditions.

Zoe Goodman lives in New York City and is the manager of the Union for Reform Judaism’s JewV’Nation Fellowship. Previously, she taught middle school in Nashville and worked at a foundation in Colorado; she is an active volunteer on issues impacting women. Zoe loves to read, ski, and watch episodes of The West Wing and Arrested Development.

Zoe Goodman
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