I sit in a Portland covered with snow, and full of Christmas cheer. The cafes are playing Christmas music, people are getting ready for the “Festival of Last Minute” at Saturday Market, and I am discovering the answer to that not-so-age-old question (the one other than, “Why does Steph abuse hyphens?”), “What do nice Jewish girls who just moved away from home do for Christmas?” Apparently we go home.
I’m going home on Christmas day because, well, it’s an American thing to do. There’s no better time of year for me to pause in my tireless job searching, eat a good meal with my family, celebrate our yearly triumphs together. It doesn’t matter that I don’t technically celebrate the Holiday; it’s a cultural thing.
The Holiday season has always, since I was very little, been an awkward time for me. The media attention Chanukah receives and the so-called “War on Christmas” make the people I know suddenly hyper-aware of my Jewishness. My friends have never been sure how to wrap my gifts or known what to call them. I’ve lost count of the amount of times people have apologized for giving me a card that said “Merry Christmas” because they had bought a pack of Christmas cards to give to friends. I once drove a friend’s mother to distraction when I had dinner at her house during the Christmas season; she simply didn’t know whether the gingerbread men she had bought for dessert would offend me and got me a sprinkle-covered butter cookie in the shape of a Jewish star instead. My Spanish teach in high school always gave a guilty glance in my direction when she made the same realization that she made every year: She should probably broaden our weekly writing prompt from being merely “How does your family celebrate Christmas?”
I tended to feel a little embarrassed over the special treatment. Christmas is such an “American” thing that we accept as being a natural part of December, and I ceased to care about feeling left out pretty early on. “It’s the thought that counts” and all that. It’s made me realize that Christmas is a funny time of year. What was Jesus’ birthday party has become something far less specific. It’s become a way of cheering ourselves up during what is literally the darkest time of the year. It’s become a time for friends and family and gift giving (or brash consumerism, depending on your perspective and who you’re talking about). And I think this change has made it a funny moment in America when we don’t know quite what to do with our differences. We, as a country, attempt to encompass and purport to welcome so many different cultures. The challenges and incompleteness of this acceptance become incredibly clear in these moments when we suddenly realize that you cannot really define an American through shared tradition.
I think I first became aware of how uncomfortable my difference made people during my kindergarten “winter” pageant. We cheerfully performed an all-cast number detailing the travails of Peter, the lonely pine tree (whose loneliness was cured by being chopped down and set-up as a Christmas tree. Even at the time this felt odd.); students pretending to be Santa’s elves banged drums and rang bells. Others pretended to be angels in a heavenly marching band. In one number that I desperately wanted to be in, three boys rode on sparkling stick horses, urging their steeds to take them quickly to Bethlehem (I could not understand for the life of me why only boys were allowed in the number—I liked horses twice as much as they did.).
And, I, the lone Jewish girl in the class, in the midst of all the elaborate choreography and childish joy, got to come forward, say a silly poem about a dreidel (“Spin, little dreidel, for you will lie still when Chanukah has passed!”), spin around once as if pretending to be a dreidel, and then join the line-up of children again. It was likely the most boring part of the entire pageant. At first the small nod in my direction made me proud; at the time, having a solo felt special. But soon it stopped feeling special; it felt uncomfortable.
As the years went on, the “Chanukah nod” felt less and less genuine. Every year in elementary school, the Christmas season heralded the learning of fun Christmas songs in music class. Jingle Bell Rock is great when you’re seven, as is the rather politically incorrect “Pablo the Reindeer from Mexico.” And then, inevitably, would come the randomly selected Chanukah song of the year. No one liked the randomly selected Chanukah song of the year, not even me. It was always slow, painfully slow, with a boring tune. The lyrics usually involved something about candles shining in a window, and, aside from that, had very little to do with the story of Chanukah. I sometimes wondered if the lyricist even knew the story of Chanukah. One would think that instead of commemorating a victory of religious freedom, Chanukah was celebrating some kind of bizarre right-of-passage that occurs when Jewish children learn how to light candles, or commemorating the (clearly Jewish) invention of fire that enabled us not to freeze our tuchises off in the desert. In any case, the little glances in my direction, the words “Happy Holidays” printed in red over Christmas tree graphics on grocery bags, ceased to feel nice. They felt at worst begrudging, at best, fearful.
Chanukah is, in fact, a rather minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, but sort of a well-needed mid-winter reminder that “Hey, things have been tough, but we’re still here.” It’s a heartening story to hear, I think, for anyone: the small beating the mighty, the oppressed reclaiming their right to live. It tells of a military victory the Jews, led by Judah Macabee, had over the Assyrians, who, like any industriously conquering Empire, were trying to stamp out the culture and religion of the conquered. It’s a story much like the ones Jewish children hear from their bubbes, “Back then, we could be killed in our homes, and so we moved to America where we could practice our tradition.” “Back then, there were quotas on how many Jews could be accepted to X school, but your Uncle Joshua…” It’s a story much like the ones passed down through the communities of any minority: “They tried to shut us out. We didn’t give up.”
What’s bolstered Chanukah’s popularity throughout the years is, as many people will tell you, is its proximity to Christmas. Instead of focusing on making a major holiday like Purim or Rosh Hashanah flashier, we’ve made Chanukah a concession to our children. I get the sense that even though Christmas is practically secular these days, something feels wrong about having a Christmas tree; it feels like we’re abandoning our culture. So we tell our children, that even if we don’t have Santa or a tree covered with lights, we have beautiful candles and an official game to play. We have eight days of latkes and jelly doughnuts. Even as the “Beauty and the Beast Christmas Special” or the American Girl Dolls’ Christmas stories subtly remind us that even our favorite toys are of a slightly different culture from us, we still have something of our own to celebrate. I think it only really struck me when I realized that I could not find an “adult” recording of my favorite Chanukah song, “Mi Yimallel” anywhere, how much Chanukah has become a holiday for Jewish children. Our marketing message, buried under layers of people in ridiculous dreidel costumes or John Stewart jokes has become, “We’re still here. Though everyone around you is doing something different, we still have our traditions, and they are still fun/powerful. We are American, but we are Jewish. We are the same but different.” Though it comes in a weaker form, farther removed from the exact event that we’re celebrating, it’s funny to think that the message is pretty much the same. As every minority group has done in one way or the other throughout their different and diverse struggles, like Horton’s Whos we try and remind not the world, but ourselves, “We are here! We are here! We are here!”
I don’t think Chanukah will ever stop making people feel uncomfortable; moments of difference make people uncomfortable. The first moment when we realize that we can’t assume everyone is straight, cis-gendered, middle-class, white is a difficult one. We feel embarrassed; we get afraid of offending people. Some minorities feel guilty for causing discomfort; others are proud for expanding people’s horizons. When it comes to Chanukah, my gut reaction is to feel silly for causing so much fuss over such an unimportant holiday. I can be Jewish and American. It’s okay that we’re not all exactly alike.
Nevertheless, secular Jew though I am, I’ve been looking at the menorah I brought from home with anticipation. It’s not a family heirloom by any means, but my grandma bought it for my dad when he moved into his first apartment so that he could celebrate Chanukah even away from home. And this year I will light the candles and sing the songs I know as a reminder of where I came from, of my hopes for the future, and, of not to give up on the causes I strongly believe in. It’s a message of hope that I think is appropriate for the Holiday season no matter what you celebrate.