Hanukkah Harry of SNL fame
Hanukkah Harry of SNL fame

No Santa, no tree — but (Jewish) Christmas all the same

When I was 5, I asked my mom if Santa Claus was real.

“Are you sure you want to know?” she asked. I was. So she told me: Santa Claus is real, but he doesn’t deliver the presents himself. He stays in his sleigh on the rooftop while his clown assistant goes down the chimney and leaves the presents for the children.

Where my mother came up with this story about a Christmas clown, I don’t know, though I faithfully reported it back to all the Santa doubters in my kindergarten class the next day. And this is where I’m supposed to segue into reflections about celebrating the December holidays while growing up in an interfaith family, except I didn’t: I’m fully Jewish on both sides, with roots going back generation upon generation in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, I believed in Santa Claus, left cookies for Santa (and his clown) on Christmas Eve and received presents from him on Christmas morning.

We celebrated Christmas this way because it was how my mother’s family celebrated when she was growing up. They were one of a small cluster of Jewish families in their small town in Maine, and to them, it seemed like the culturally appropriate thing to do. I remember going to my grandparents’ house, being almost too excited to sleep on Christmas Eve and tensely waiting until my parents woke up to go downstairs and start opening the stack of presents.

Because we were Jewish, we didn’t have a Christmas tree, of course. That may seem like a fine distinction, but it was a huge one to me. Every year, our close family friends invited us over to decorate their tree, and the shiny balls and ornaments, imbued with so much meaning and pleasure for Christian families, filled me with wonder and envy. (The children in this family also got baskets filled with candy on Easter, which I coveted, too.) So even amid my Santa Claus-filled holiday joy, I still experienced a piece of the Jewish child’s Christmas deprivation.

Now, as a parent raising children in a Jewish home with a non-Jewish spouse, I’ve been lucky to have an easier time than many navigating our different backgrounds and establishing our own family traditions. I think this is partly to do with the fluidity of my holiday traditions as a child and largely to do with the flexibility of my husband and the magnanimity with which he has embraced Jewish practices.

By the time Aaron and I started our lives together, I had left Christmas behind (in fact, my family stopped celebrating shortly after my mother trotted out the story about Santa’s clown). Aaron, however, had gone his whole life doing the Christmas shebang — tree, lights on the house, elaborate, drawn-out gift-giving rituals. And though we had agreed that the religious practice in our home, to the extent that we had one, would be Jewish, I also supported him in continuing the cultural traditions that were meaningful to him. So for several years we had a Christmas tree with lights and ornaments , and when our first son was born, we stacked presents under it throughout the month of December, to be opened in a big blowout on Christmas morning.

But a funny thing happened. As Nate grew into a toddler and began to absorb the Jewish rituals surrounding him — Shabbat, Hanukkah, Purim, Passover, Sukkot, regular services at our shul — we all began to feel more Jewish.

The year that Nate was 3 and a year or so before Harvey was born, we decided to join my dad, my stepmother and all their kids for a big family vacation over the winter holidays. We would be leaving on Christmas Day, and I asked Aaron whether he wanted to get a tree that year.

“No,” he said, “it’s not worth it. Besides, Nate is a little Jew.”

And that, it turned out, was that. Nate is now 6, Harvey is 2, and we haven’t had a Christmas tree since. Santa Claus doesn’t pay us a visit. Aaron takes the lead in getting the kids excited to light Hanukkah candles and share Hanukkah gifts. It’s the resolution of a December dilemma that never was a dilemma in the first place.

There’s no doubt that finding harmony among different cultural traditions can be emotional and complicated. I thought I was immune to angst about Christmas, but when I went to Nate’s preschool holiday sing-along a couple of years ago, and there was only one Hanukkah number amid a dozen Christmas songs in the lineup, I was perturbed.

At the end of the day, of course, there’s no leaving Christmas behind: It’s everywhere in our culture, and it’s still very important on Aaron’s side of the family. Most Jews develop their own Christmas traditions, whether it’s Chinese food or a Christmas Day movie. In our little family, we get up on Christmas morning and eat panettone, delicious Italian Christmas bread, which I special-order for the occasion. Then there are calls to the grandparents, and we usually unwrap a few gifts they have sent us. It’s our perfect Jewish Christmas.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.