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My Hanukkah–Christmas Song

This holiday season, we asked our writers to share with us ideas around “The New Christmas”—how they are reinventing the holiday season in new ways: in personal or public rituals, with new traditions or with a return to long-lost ones, with broader definitions of family and community. We asked them to share with us how they are moving away from the “consumerism” culture of the season, what “shifts” are happening in the ways they celebrate the season, and how they are engaging their friends and family in these new traditions. — Eds.

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Worthy-is-the-lambFirst page of the concluding chorus “Worthy is the Lamb,” from Handel’s manuscript of Messiah (Image via Wikipedia, Creative Commons License)

I have never liked Hanukkah. Never. Remember that. But life takes odd twists and turns and lands you in the most unexpected places.

It all began with my mother’s fanatic attachment to Christmas. My Jewish mother.  My German-Jewish mother. As a child, I found nothing strange about the fact that, despite our being Jewish, we had a huge tree, hung with lots of sparkly decorations, including homemade Santas with cotton beards we glued ourselves, and a panoply of presents underneath. (It was topped with a Jewish star.) We were Americans. We loved Christmas. So did everyone else.

Only later did our festive Christmas celebrations strike me as a tad excessive. Not to mention confusing.

Those of us—and we know each other instantly—who’ve had the misfortune to be raised by German-Jewish mothers understand why a woman who fled Germany one step ahead of the Nazis, and whose parents died as a result of the Holocaust, clings to Christmas like a wife to a husband who beats her. She forgets the beatings and remembers the make-up sex.

My mother recalled the Christmas season as a rare glow of light in the chilly, dark forest of her childhood: holiday cookies and stollen, songs, fancy ribbons, special treats, good cheer, piles of presents, new clothes, no school. She wanted to recreate and transmit those memories to us, her children. She wanted, too, to be like everyone else. To shop for presents. To wrap presents. To choose and pack away tree ornaments. To be festive. And roast a goose.

Yes, at some point in my childhood—perhaps when I started going to Hebrew School twice a week—a Hanukkah menorah was introduced, with colored candles and crummy little gifts—chocolate money (or gelt), a dreidel. It was a dutiful ritual rather than a joyful one. My father, an Italian Jew, who went along with mom’s Christmas extravaganzas, believed that this small gesture balanced things out. I now realize that he was vaguely embarrassed about the whole Christmas thing. I have no idea if he and his family celebrated Hanukkah in pre-World War II Naples. I doubt it. It was really the brainchild of Reform Jews in America to counterbalance Christmas.

All through high school, college, and my early working years I happily sang American and French Christmas carols. And I loved singing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, which I’d been taught in my high school chorus class. Then I married and purchased a small Christmas tree of my own. Everything was fine until the day my father-in-law, who recalled a terrifying childhood of Polish pogroms during the Christmas season, caught sight of the tree. He, who had refused to let his son, my husband, set foot in a synagogue until our marriage, because he’d been rebelling against his own Orthodox Jewish home, now became Mr. Super Jew. He confronted me with the profound horror of my ways. And I admit that I was vulnerable to his emotional attack.  Having a tree and being Jewish really didn’t make a lot of sense. I was starting a new life. I was rethinking traditions.

My tree became smaller and smaller until the day we left New York, moved to a city where Jews were a distinct minority, and I decided—making a supreme personal sacrifice—not to celebrate Christmas. Not to have a tree. This way, I said to myself, my two budding boys would not be confused. As I had been.

One day the postman came to our door and asked my son, age 4, what Santa was bringing him for Christmas. Without a moment’s hesitation he said, “We don’t celebrate Christmas, we’re Jewish.” I beamed. See, I said to myself, no confusion. No sense of being deprived. The kid knew who he was. My sacrifice had been worth it.

I missed Christmas. Hanukkah never did it for me, but, what the hell, I was trying to behave like a rational woman. And for 20 years, until the day my husband and I divorced and I moved back to New York with the boys, it worked. The three of us continued to celebrate Hanukkah. It would have seemed strange to reintroduce a tree.

A few years went by, then—surprise!—my ex-husband married a non-Jew and, yes, you guessed it, together they celebrated Christmas, with a huge tree and presents, which our boys thoroughly enjoyed when they went up to visit. And I, who had always loved Christmas, was stuck with Hanukkah! I was stuck with making potato pancakes and lighting candles while the kids looked forward to a tree and Christmas at their dad’s house. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

But I’ve come up with a celebration of my own. My kids are now grown and live far away. They and their families do not come home for Hanukkah (celebrated by one son) or Christmas (celebrated, along with Hanukkah, by the other). As for me, on Christmas morning, I make myself a treat for breakfast, like smoked salmon and capers on buttered toast, put on a CD of Handel’s Messiah (a thoughtful gift from my younger son), listen to it in its entirety, and crown the occasion by singing the soprano part of the Hallelujah Chorus even though I’m no longer a soprano. I sing it with great gusto. It makes me feel young, and happy, and full of good cheer. Which is what the holidays—whatever your religion—are all about.

Then I usually go to the movies with a friend.

 

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  • Bob and Dale Mnookin December 26, 2015 at 7:38 pm

    Bravo Eleanor.

    What a marvelous piece. So many of our generation of assimilated Jews who enjoyed guiltless secular Christmas celebrations I our youth now feel that we ought to enjoy Hanukah

    Reply
  • AJ Lederman December 23, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    Great clarification on the “love” of trees, lights and ornaments in German – Jewish culture. Eleanor helped me understand my own, more protected, US based desire for glittery trees along with the menorah. Still left with ambiguity, but tolerating it better.

    Reply