Growing up in a small town in Middle America, I didn't know anyone who didn't celebrate Christmas. We all participated in our annual Christmas concert at school and, likely, sang and danced in one at our respective churches as well. Christmas time was magical and special. I would help my mom decorate our tree. We even got so detailed that we strung freshly popped popcorn with fresh cranberries with a needle and string as garland (And might I say, wow, mom – Wow!) Christmas in our house meant family and love and food and togetherness.
I participated in my first Hanukkah celebration when I was twenty-seven years old. I didn't know I was going to this celebration until a few hours before I showed up. I was out of my element. I didn't know any of the traditions, games, history, and foods – heck, the language – and over half of the people in attendance. But I had a blast. And I was curious and amazed.
I had just started dating my now husband at the time. He was Jewish and I was barely practicing anything – and we barely knew one another – but here I was, at this family Hanukkah party and I wasn’t intimidated. In fact, part of me felt like I was at home and I was eager to ask a lot of questions and learn more. Eight days of presents? Fried food? Chocolate coins? Candles? Song? Hebrew? Sign me up!
While Hanukkah (obviously) wasn’t the reason I decided to convert, this event was the catalyst that sent me on my own path to Judaism. It took me nearly a year to complete the rigorous study and commitment to my new faith and it wasn’t easy but it was – without a doubt – the right choice for me.
This year will be my seventh Hanukkah celebration. I last celebrated Christmas six years ago. Ironically, we now have six menorahs that shine bright for eight “crazy” nights. I still keep my small Christmas tree I carried around with me in my “single days” from apartment to apartment, city to city. While I will never put the tree back up in my home, I can’t part with it. It’s a reminder of where I came from and the twenty-eight Christmases I very joyously celebrated.
My little family and I love Christmas – We love looking at the beautiful trees and lights – And feeling the magic in Christmas carols. We appreciate all of the decorating that goes into this time of year and are also a little bit thankful that we simply put up some menorahs and blue stuff (maybe some dreidel lights) and call it a day. My mom and step-dad celebrate Christmas and we will never hesitate to celebrate with them in their home or with any of our plethora of Christmas-celebrating friends and family.
Traditions are what your children remember and carry with them. Instead of continuing with my mom’s beautiful popcorn and cranberry garland threading here in our home, we get to create our own, unique celebration that takes pieces from my husband’s family with a twist of how my family celebrates holidays in general. We eat latkes and brisket, sufganiyot (fried jelly donuts) and matzah ball soup. We open presents for eight whole days after we pray and sing around our beautiful, lighted menorahs. We give back to others who aren’t as fortunate as we are. We tell the story of Hanukkah and how after the Temple was destroyed, the Maccabees helped discover a jar of oil that is said to have kept the eternal flame burning for eight whole nights even though it only had enough oil for one day – talk about a miracle!
To us, Hanukkah is about being together as a family and creating tradition. When we added kids to our lives, this “Festival of Lights” became much more exciting. The truth is, Hanukkah is a very minor holiday within our faith. Some think it is the “Jewish Christmas”. Really, especially in the United States, Hanukkah has become the answer to Christmas since it all occurs so close together. Last year, my two-year old daughter asked every night if it was time to “wighttt caaaandullls?” The look of amazement and happiness on the faces of our wee ones as we light the candle(s) and open a present and tell the story of the magic of Hanukkah is priceless. While my December may no longer include a Christmas tree, my heart is so full with our new traditions and the magic that can be felt by simply being together.