A Jewish Convert’s Guide to Enjoying the Winter Holiday Jumble

A hanukkiyah and a Christmas tree (Getty Images)

by Leah Grisham

(Kveller via JTA) – This essay was first published on Kveller

Jewish kids and Christmas: For some parents, this combination can seem like a proverbial minefield of challenges presented to us each winter. The secular world, it seems, becomes infinitely less so as Christmas decorations, commercials and episodes of beloved kids shows proliferate. 

For interfaith families like mine, which celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, this time can be especially fraught. My own 3-year-old Jewish daughter, for instance, is obsessed with the Grinch, loves Santa Claus, and has been singing “Jingle Bells” since July. No matter how much I try to hype up Hanukkah, she still asks me if it’s Christmas every time she sees snow (which happens early in our part of the country). Whether it’s the constant Christmas messaging or her own hazy memories of past Christmas celebrations, it seems like Hanukkah plays second fiddle to the other December holiday.

My holiday anxiety was especially strong last year, which was my first winter holiday season as an official Jew after converting earlier in the year. I’d breezed through Passover and the High Holidays content in my Jewishness, but after Thanksgiving I felt a huge amount of pressure to make Hanukkah more fun, festive and memorable for my daughter — and, if I’m being honest — for myself, someone who spent decades of her pre-conversion life loving Christmas.

I’m not alone in these feelings. According to posts made in a Facebook group called Jewish Converts (Converts to Judaism), an online support group of sorts for Jewish converts that is over 2,500 members strong, this time of year sees lots of people asking for advice and venting their uncertainties toward navigating the winter holidays. Is it OK to still have a tree in my interfaith home? Is it OK to attend extended-family Christmas gatherings? What do I tell my kid when all their friends are talking about gifts from Santa? How can I get my mother-in-law to stop trying to proselytize my kids? What if I still love Christmas music? These questions are not totally unique to converts, but for those of us who grew up celebrating Christmas (no matter how un-religious our families’ traditions were), it can be hard — and very confusing — when it comes to the winter holidays, which can cause feelings of resentment and competition.

In my mind, the competition I was imagining between Christmas and Hanukkah became greater than the holidays themselves. Looking back, I can see now that my need to make Hanukkah “better” than Christmas became conflated with my very Jewishness: Bigger and better Hanukkah celebrations came to represent (in my mind) being Jewish “enough.” Accordingly, I spent December going crazy buying Hanukkah gifts, planning what had to be the perfect Hanukkah party and decorating every inch of our home in blue and white decorations. I don’t know what the world record for most Stars of David in one house is, but my home in December 2021 would be in the running. I was also filled with angst over the Christmas hoopla that my daughter would experience when we travelled to see our extended families over the holiday. I wanted her to feel joy and excitement over Jewish celebrations, but that felt impossible in a sea of red, green and Santa Claus. 

After so much fretting, things came to an anti-climactic end with the introduction of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which kept my small family at home alone. Weeks of feeling resentful toward extended family Christmas parties faded into disappointment that these gatherings — which would have been our first extended-family celebrations since 2018 — didn’t happen at all. In fact, as my daughter and husband enjoyed Christmas afternoon naps, I had quite a pity party for myself as I guzzled champagne and chocolates on the couch, watching “The Holiday” by myself (Jack Black and Eli Wallach make it Jewish enough for me!).

My unexpected sense of disappointment over cancelled Christmas plans made it clear: After so many quarantined holidays and life events celebrated over Zoom, the mental capacity I spent being angry at Christmas would be better spent embracing the opportunity to gather with family and friends, no matter what the occasion. 

Navigating the Christmas season as a convert to Judaism is not easy — and it would be a lie to say that I’ve totally let go of the fact that, to my a 3-year-old, Christmas is more exciting than Hanukkah — but this year I am going to do my best to stop fretting over details. 

Our world has seen so much grief and upheaval over the last few years; maybe it is OK to let our guards down a little bit and embrace joy wherever it can be found. I’ll pack our menorah and Hanukkah pajamas and bring them to Grandma’s house for Christmas and do my best to just let my daughter enjoy the fun of this year’s holiday jumble.

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