One of my favorite modern Christmas movies is Christmas with the Kranks, in which an empty-nesting couple go to hilarious lengths to “skip Christmas” as their only daughter is away in the Peace Corps. While the entire town cannot understand their desire to bah-humbug their usual holiday cheer, they mostly stick to their Grinch-like plan.
You can probably guess the ending. Based on a novel by John Grisham, the movie offers an interesting view on what it means to not celebrate Christmas when all of those around you are bursting with the holiday spirit, and to me, it represented what it means to be a Jew who is inundated with Christmas this time of year.
I converted to Judaism in 2012, and the first Christmas I experienced that year was especially hard. I remember sitting in my room crying and upset as I scrolled through Facebook looking at my friends celebrating Christmas with their families, sitting around their tree, opening presents, and having Christmas dinner. I felt excluded and alone, as it was also the first year I did not celebrate Christmas with my parents. It felt like a loss to me, of tradition and of a lifetime of happy memories.
Not only are many Jews by choice skipping Christmas, they’re surviving a season where Christmas has become somewhat less of a religious holiday, but an American tradition. From random people wishing you a “Merry Christmas” to the entire world shutting down to celebrate (where is that slow-down during the High Holidays?!), it often feels Christmas is shoved in your face.
While it can be hard for Jews by choice to experience the Christmas season and feel true to their new Jewish identities, here are some tips I’ve found to make the season a bit brighter.
1. Make your own traditions.
One of the things that helped me to overcome my sadness was to realize that I could make the day my own. I didn’t have to “shun” Christmas altogether, and I could still experience some of what I was missing. For example, I usually like to get Chinese food on Christmas Eve, AKA the Jewish Christmas tradition, and then on Christmas Day I make a nice meal for my family, a roasted tenderloin or turkey. We don’t see other people and just kind of hang out and do nothing, which is relaxing. It’s actually really nice to not have the Christmas pressure! It becomes a day off from the world to spend with my family with zero obligations.
2. Do what you’re comfortable with.
In our home, we don’t have a Christmas tree or any decorations like that. Some people I know who converted do though, and that’s okay if that’s what speaks to them. But, we do have a ton of Hanukkah décor and special toys that we bring out during Hanukkah, as well as eating traditional foods and lighting our multiple menorahs. We bake blue and white Hanukkah cookies in the shape of dreidels, snowflakes, and stars instead of Christmas cookies. We send out Hanukkah or New Year cards instead of Christmas cards to friends and family. This helps make the season special, even while not celebrating actual Christmas.
3. Don’t make Christmas compete with Hanukkah.
We know that Hanukkah is not the “Jewish Christmas,” and you’re never going to feel you measure up if you try to make it the same. To that point, a lot of Jews don’t believe in participating in secular Christmas things for such a minor holiday as Hanukkah, such as getting matching Hanukkah pajamas, sending Hanukkah cards, Hanukkah decorations, etc., but if that speaks to you, then go for it. But also understand that Hanukkah can be beautiful on its own, and the miracle of the oil and lights is a great reminder of the strength of the Jewish people.
4. Realize the experience of others.
I have many (born) Jewish friends who love Christmas music, have kids who are obsessed with Santa, and enjoy Christmas decorations. (And, we all know many of the traditional Christmas songs were written by Jews.) My daughter loves the Grinch movies and music. While I balked at first, I realized that listening to Christmas songs or watching a movie doesn’t make me any less of a Jew.
We don’t typically spend Christmas with my family, but many Jews by choice do. This can be a wonderful opportunity to acknowledge and encourage acceptance and understanding of other cultures, religions, experiences, and traditions.
5. Take joy in what makes you happy.
In these troubling and isolating times, I think it’s more important than ever to find joy where you can. Whether that is baking cookies, cooking food for loved ones, giving presents, or listening to Christmas music — it’s all okay.
Part of my struggle has always been feeling guilty (hello, Jewish guilt!) around wanting to continue some of the things that I still love about the Christmas sesaon, like baking or cooking or spending time with loved ones. Realizing that I could still do those things, maybe in a different way, and not feel like I was abandoning my Jewish self has made the Christmas season easier for me to get through.
I hope my fellow Jews by choice are finding happiness this holiday season, and after celebrating Hanukkah, find themselves discovering new ways to make the season their own.