‘Tis the Season!

Lights: They are popping up in strings on trees and doorposts all around us. It’s about that time of year when, despite Thanksgiving having not yet fattened our bellies, people take it upon themselves to light up their neighborhoods and places of business. The holidays are upon us, but the lights might mean different things to different people. I imagine to some Jews, the strings of lights and well-lit trees bring twinges of pain, cringing and frustration. To Chanukah bush or not to Chanukah bush? What about … G-d forbid … the Christmas tree? After all, most people celebrate the holiday in its secular fashion … right?

I was at the Walgreens a few weeks ago and they were stocking an end cap with Chanukah goodies — candles, cookie cutters, wrapping materials, gelt and more. I stopped, thought to myself “Already?” I then remembered that Chanukah comes early this year, much to my dismay. I’m not going to lie and pretend that this time of year doesn’t create some type of emotional and psychological snafu for me. I prefer when Chanukah falls right in line with Christmas, not earlier, not later. It’s just easier. I don’t know why, but it just makes the month of December move a little more smoothly in my book.

I don’t stress out or freak out about whether the fact that I spent 20+ years of my life with a Christmas tree decked out in whites and silvers with happy holiday treats tucked snugly in my very own stocking hung on a fireplace or — later in life — on the stairwell banister. Christmas in my house was never religious. Baby Jesus was nonexistent pretty much my whole life and the “meaning of the season” was never something talked about. It was just that time of year when we put up my mom’s beautiful tree, wrapped gifts, and watched the Christmas parades on TV. We’d have a big Christmas meal with a glazed ham (eek!) or rouladen, this classic German dish my mom always liked to make that I pretty much detested. There were scalloped potatoes and pie and cookies. It was just a day to sit around, play with new toys, and hope for snow.

My favorite part about the holidays, though, was that it wasn’t religious. I only went to one Christmas service in my life, and I’ll admit it was absolutely beautiful. I say this because the church was decked out in lights and garland and the service went right through my ears without registering. I was focused on the lights. My family would hop in the car between Christmas and New Year’s and peruse town in search of the most amazing, see-it-on-satellite-from-space light experiences. Houses adorned with giant, blow-up santas and snowmen and plastic reindeer dangling from roofs.

When I think of Christmas, I think of light. To me, December — whether it is Chanukah or the holly holiday that is meant to be holy — is about bringing light unto a dark, sometimes overwhelming world.

Despite not “celebrating” Christmas, it poses some interesting challenges for the Jew by Choice. Ever since I stopped “celebrating” (mid-college years), my mom has found it harder and harder to get out the tree and put up the ornaments because I wouldn’t help her put up the ornaments. To my mom, the tree was one consistent thing that we always had and did, it was our memory that we built together, as a family (whether we liked it or not!). So last year, mom didn’t put up the tree. No ornaments, no lights. I don’t think they went out to look at the town’s lights, either. It ceased to be special for my mom, and I can’t help but feel like in some way by choosing to not celebrate the holiday — however secular it was in our house — I was the Grinch who stole my mother’s Christmas.

It’s word games when I talk to my family. I ask my little brother “So … what do you want … for the holidays?” It’s become this generic way of getting around saying “Christmas,” because it riles the questions “But you don’t CELEBRATE Christmas, sis!” They don’t celebrate Chanukah, so what’s a Jew to do? I buy cards for my relatives who either don’t know I’m Jewish or who didn’t react when I told them, the cards reading “I hope the holidays fill your house with joy” with a snowflake in sprinkled glitter adorning the front. It’s the best I can do to keep the peace and try to stay in the spirit of the season. When the office jockeys talk about Christmas parties, I just link eyes with the other Jew in the room and it’s like the word was never uttered, “holiday” placed primly in its place (to be all-inclusive, of course).

My parents have slowly come into the idea that Christmas is not on my calendar, per se, and last year even got me a few Chanukah items. A music box, among other things. They try, and I try, and it all works out. But maybe I’m lucky because I wasn’t raised with the manger on the dinner table, having to move baby Jesus slowly to make sure I don’t crack the fine porcelain while preparing to set the table for dinner. It was just Santa and Rudolph. My Christmas was secular and harmless, really!

But I think, as I said, the thing that connects the two holidays — no matter who you are or what you believe or celebrate — is that wintertime is meant to be a season of light. Chanukah a holiday of lights (albeit a minor holiday), and Christmas being a holiday to bring light in remembering the star above Bethlehem, or what have you (see how little I know!?). I began to notice today the lights going up everywhere, and it made me brim with happiness. In winter the day is so brief, and before you know it the light has gone away. Some days, the light is barely there, filled with clouds and snow instead. So people place white lights on their shrubs and in their windows, and yes, maybe there’s a Christmas tree hidden in there somewhere, but isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it revealing and awe inspiring?

“And G-d said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light” (Genesis 1:3)

Light is the guide on our path, so that we do not stumble, and if we do stumble, it brings us back up and helps us carry on. Light rings of wisdom and revelation, of truth and knowledge. Our mission is to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6), and every time I step out into the night during this time of year and see lights flickering along sidewalks and in tall apartment windows, I cannot help but feel that my steps are a little lighter, a little more guided.

Winter has always been my favorite season. Despite the snow (which I love anyhow) and the darkness, the lights are what I love most. I don’t think so much about the motive for them being there as I do that they are a symbol, though those who put them up may not even think of them in such a manner. They might just be a decoration to some or an irritating reminder of Christmas to others, but to me, they are a reminder of my mission.

I hope to see more gleanings on Chanukah as it approaches. In truth, it’s not that far away. Until I gather more thoughts, shalom to you friends.

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  1.  Tamara says:

    Hi Chavivah

    I really enjoyed this post. Growing up, in my much younger years, we decorated our home for Chanukah. We had blue and silver foil decorations hanging in the home, Happy Chanukah banners, and lights! Yes, we had CHANUKAH lights. My father would get on the roof and string the old-school style (bigger than now) “holiday lights. There was something different about our house though. Our house ONLY had blue and white lights. They were our Chanukah lights. We grew up in a city where there was barely a Jew. There was a “temple”. Just one and it was the victim of anti semitic graffitti on more than one occasion. That is to say, we did Chanukah in a way that “fit” with the community.

    We never had a Chanukah Bush. We always lit our menorahs, said the prayers (in Hebrew), ate Latkes, and all the other Reform (perhaps secular) style things one does on Chanukah. But really, that IS what Chanukah is. I always enjoyed it.

    And a confession, I still enjoy a light amount of holiday decorating. A foil menorah decor here, some blinking menorah hand dreidel lights there. I like it. It does bring light and makes me smile. Another confession…I’ve always enjoyed driving around to see the neighborhood and the lights. It’s pretty. It’s festive. And I think I agree with you, it’s quite a wintery thing. Of course sometimes there are mangers with baby J in them, but it doesn’t bother me. That is a tradition of other’s and it’s their’s. I would hope that someone who celebrates Christmas, when they pass a home with a menorah in the window, would smile and appreciate the beauty just the same.

    Thanks for this post. And a holiday filled with light to you :)

  2. Ok, so here is where the Conservative/Masorti hawk breaks down a little ;) .

    Christmas is about Jesus and kretches and church and all that. But the SEASON… Yule… trees, wreaths, yule logs, feasts, gift giving… is something those of us of Northern European (Celtic, Scandinavian, Continental Germanic) extractions have had in our DNA for thousands of years. The Christians just stole them. For northern Europeans, this was the time when our ancestors awaited the return of the sun… or the growing darkness and final battle of Ragnarok, if the sun didn’t return. It was a time to recognize that as tough as things were in the cold and dark of the forests in that part of the world, light, family, community, and celebration (and, ok… the gods…) could get us through.

    Now, obviously, as JBCs we have no business celebrating Christmas ourselves. I won’t ever go to a live nativity, midnight mass, or whatever. But, I will help my non-Jewish family members with the non-religious aspects of the season. Jewish tradition values the principle of “shalom bayit”… peace in the home… and I can return the love and support of my family (those who still remain in contact) by not depriving them of my presence during this time of year, or that of my daughters. This is not my holiday, but it is theirs, and I love them, and I will be there.

    I often hear rabbis pontificate about how JBCs need to cut all of this out of their lives, and I agree that the Christian stuff does need to go. But I for one believe that it is important to reciprocate the tolerance and respect of those family members who have supported us in our journeys. Some of them have eaten in my sukkah, they’ve gone out of their way to do all they can to make their kitchens places I can eat, and they will have my family in their homes when the yule log is blazing on the fire, the tree is up, the wine is out, and the lights are on. :)

    As for Chanukkah… that’s another post waiting to happen!

    Great post Chavi!
    kol tuv,

  3.  yankel says:


    Thank you for your post. It was beautiful, and it made me think about my own relationship with the Holidays.

    One of the first great Twilight-Zone moments my life came about in the interim between a Christmas and Chanukah one year. I maybe was five. I was standing in the kitchen of my Queens apartment with my mother and I asked her, “How come there are so many commercials about Christmas, but hardly any about Chanukah?” And my mother told me, “Hardly anyone celebrates Chanukah, just Jews. Most people are Christian and they celebrate Christmas. Jews are only a very small minority.”

    And then came my Twilight Zone moment. My neighborhood, the place I lived, was overwhelmingly Jewish (today it is overwhelmingly Korean.) Everyone I knew, everyone I played with, everywhere I went and everywhere I looked my world was Jewish. So when I was told point blank that the world I thought I knew was not in any way they way I thought I knew it, my little soul tipped over on its side and never fully righted itself.

    Yes, sometimes I do feel oppressed by the ubiquity of it. The frenzied commercialization that surrounds Christmas is a monster; you can’t get away from it. But beneath that, the Holiday Season, including Christmas, is beautiful, and I like celebrating all of it, including Christmas.

    Now, let me just say right up front, I’m married to a Catholic. She is a very Catholic Catholic, involved in the church, says daily rosary, so my hit on this is perhaps not the majority, but when I am invited to a Christmas party, I celebrate Christmas. I decorate the tree, I drink the eggnog, and I sing all the carols I know. My favorites are Adesde Fidelis (in Latin); God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen; and the Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…). I’ve gone to midnight mass on Christmas Eve (it’s a beautiful service), and will probably go again.

    I feel we can do this without compromising our Judaism. It is, after all, a matter of belief. As Jews, we can sing songs and help celebrate with our Christian friends the birth of Christ (it is no coincidence that all the best Christmas songs of the twentieth century were written by Jews). We’re just not allowed to buy into it. And if we don’t buy into it, what’s the harm of celebrating its spirit with friends? Christianity does, after all, fit the Noachide definition of a righteous Gentile faith. So why not celebrate?

    There is a story told about Philo of Alexandria, the philosopher, Torah scholar, and leader of the Alexandrian Jewish Community about 100 BCE. One day a colleague saw him coming out of the baths of Artemis. The baths of Artemis were a public spa/swimming pool that was open to anyone with the price of admission. But since it was run by the priestesses of Artemis (a virgin order, as Artemis was a virgin goddess), it was considered a pagan temple and even entering it was considered as serving pagan gods. When his colleague asked Philo to explain himself, Philo said, “I go to the spa and the masseuse rubs me down. I then go to the pool. I float, I write, the priestess brings me wine and I drink it. All this while surrounded by statues of the gods. So, tell me. Is Philo serving the gods, or are the gods serving Philo?”

    So when we celebrate Christmas with our friends or families in a spirit of joy and unity, are we serving Christmas or is Christmas serving us?

  4. Well said Yankel! That story of Philo is excellent! It has always been those minds among us who have preserved our people, I think. The sicarii, the zealots, always lead to our doom, but people willing to compromise without compromising, like Philo, like Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, like Hillel…. these are the folks who have allowed us to adapt to like around us while still remaining Jews.

    kol tuv!

  5.  Chaviva says:


    I don’t mind going to a “Christmas” party and hanging out with egg nog (which I love), and Christmas trees and holly and wreaths and stuff. But some of the songs, I do mind. I can do jingle bells and white christmas and stuff. But the songs about the birth of Christ? Nigh, can’t do it. It makes me uncomfortable.

    When I was in high school and was vehemently non-Christian I was satisfied singing just about any song in chorus, knowing that the music was beautiful all the same — the words were irrelevant if I didn’t necessarily believe in them.

    But as I’ve aged, I just can’t do it. I find it hard to listen to them, and not necessarily oppressive, but definitely uncomfortable. But that’s just my take, and it’s probably because I grew up entirely secular ;)

  6.  Tamara says:

    Chaviva, I have a memory, similar to something you just mentioned.

    When I was little, living in Simi Valley, there were few Jews. I remember in elementary school when we would do Christmas arts and crafts and I would insist on doing something for Chanukah. At the same time, we would do Christmas concerts and I remember singing “Go tell it on the Mountain, over the hills and everywhere, go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born”. OY VEY!

    As I got older I got more “hardcore” about Jewish stuff. In Brownies (pre-Girl Scouts) when my troop made Christmas wreaths out of wire bent into circles and then using lunch baggies tied around to make a frosty looking wreath; I insisted my wreath be bent into a Star of David. Oh how I wish I had that still!

    And then, in Jr. High School I remember being in the Sign Language Club. We were doing songs in ASL and singing them simultaneously. The big song was “Hallelujah”. I just didn’t want to do it, so my role, rather than singing/signing was to conduct. HAHAHA. Yes, I stood up there and conducted a bunch of my peers signing Christmas songs.

    Thanks for helping me remember. And a final thought, I hope my kids are just as strong in their culture to fight for it!

    Happy Holidays :D

  7.  yankel says:


    You and I seem to be on the same page with this. Jewish particularism has helped preserve us, I suppose, but it’s also helped contribute to a lot of bad history. We are called upon to be a nation apart, and so we should be. But I really believe that our understanding of that apartness has got to become a lot more nuanced and sophisticated. We can still be Jews while walking together with the rest of the world.

  8.  avishalom says:

    “about bringing light unto a dark, sometimes overwhelming world.”

    Exactly, and that is just one of the reasons our winter solstice festival is better! We do it at the waining moon closest to the solstice–the darkest time of year. Christmas always is a few days after the solstice, even if there is a bright full moon that night. And few Christians (or ‘secular’ Christmas-celebrators) ever even think about the connection to the sun or the moon and darkness.

    Chanukah always starts the 25 of Kislev. It is that moonless calendar of Pope Gregory that moves around year to year!

    Of course, no one even tries to claim that Jesus was born around the winter solstice. But pre-Christian solstice festivals abounded in Europe, often celebrated with the decorating of evergreen trees to brighten up the winter.

    I also like that Chanukah is a celebration of freedom–the successful struggle against a government and culture that was rapidly assimilating the Jews. That is relevant in all ages, and a reminder of our responsibility for Tikkun Olkam–that we must always be vigilant against potential oppressors, rather than wait for a “Prince of Peace” to come (or come back) and save us.

    That is indeed the real meaning of the season: “bringing light unto a dark, sometimes overwhelming world.”

  9.  Rhonda says:

    When I think of the setting up and decorating of trees,
    I just remember Jeremiah 10, and I don’t miss them anymore. ^_^

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