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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Whatever (or, our crazy holiday season)

My parents were Jewish refugees from Hitler's Europe. Neither had had a strongly religious upbringing. Both were intent on assimilating into American life as thoroughly as possible. The result: my brother and I had Christmas trees. Note the plural: on at least one occasion, when each of us fell in love with a different tree, we came home with both.

Over time, my mother grew increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of celebrating Christmas. I recall her suggesting, "Couldn't we just decorate a branch?" My father, on the other hand -- an avowed atheist -- has a sentimental fondness for Christmas. He believes people are nicer to each other at this time of year. He also enjoys Christmas lights: when I lived in Los Angeles, where my parents live, we used to drive around and look at them one evening every year. I remember him working in his home office (he was a workaholic, and retired reluctantly at age 80 due to health problems) with Christmas carols playing on his portable tape deck.

My husband (the Hoosier Gadfly ) was raised a Christian, and became an agnostic (or by some definitions an atheist) in his teens. He is also something of a Grinch where Christmas is concerned, viewing it as an inconvenient commercial creation. He converted to Judaism prior to marrying his first wife (with the assistance of an unusually lenient rabbi).

So here we are, married and raising two daughters. What to do about the holidays?

I wanted my children to have the fun of decorating a tree and seeing presents piled around it on a festive holiday morning. But like my mother, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with celebrating Christmas as such. Nor was my husband thrilled with the idea. But then, the holiday tree wasn't originally a Christian notion -- the Christians borrowed it, and the timing of their festival, from pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice. Problem solved! We have a Solstice tree, and open presents on Solstice morning.

But we are Jewish, ethnically (in my case) and tribally, if not as a matter of religious belief. Moreover, my husband and I appreciate the roots of Chanukah as a celebration of the freedom to believe as one chooses. (My husband, a self-taught expert in military history, also enjoys the David vs. Goliath aspects of the Maccabees' victory over Syrian forces.) So we also celebrate Chanukah. We try to limit ourselves to small presents on each of the eight nights, as closer to Jewish tradition. (Chanukah is a relatively minor holiday, and if not for the influence of Christmas, it would involve no gifts greater than candy or small coins.)

So is Christmas out of the picture entirely? Well, no. Many years ago, my husband's mother sent the girls personalized Christmas stockings. It seems a shame not to use them. So: stocking stuffers on Christmas morning as well.

And sometimes, as I'm driving around in December, I sing a carol or two.

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