This year, our apartment put up a Christmas tree in the living room. Since high school, at the very latest, I had always asked my parents to buy a tree. Being the son of a rabbi, however, my plan was always shot down. I tried a variety of angles—a “Chanukah Bush,” a “holiday tree,” and a “conveniently timed plant” but my parents did not budge. When I came to college, I saw a fertile opportunity to indulge my fantasy of a Christmas tree in my living room.
Historically, Chanukah was relatively unimportant in the scope of Jewish holidays until Christmas became a major commercial endeavor. Jews in Ashkenazi communities would sometimes play dreidl, light the candles, or eat latkes, but otherwise found it entirely unremarkable. Starting in the mid-20th century, Jewish children, eager to partake in the gifting rituals of their Christian friends, began to ask their parents for holiday gifts. Jewish parents, eager to assimilate into the Christian community, were all too happy to oblige. So, Chanukah became a holiday with two very separate parts—ancient rituals known mostly within the Jewish community, and the “Eight Crazy Nights” of gifts known in the secular world.
I presented my elaborate history to my parents in Powerpoint form one year and, while they agreed with my narrative, they claimed that the precedent it set was a dangerous one. This year, my roommate, my girlfriend, and I added ornaments and lights, candy canes and bows to a four-foot plastic Christmas tree purchased for half-off at Rite Aid. Above it we hung three stockings. We also decided that the best way to celebrate our $25 well spent was with a holiday party for our friends.
My idealized childhood image of the holiday season looked like something out of a Toyota commercial. I would arrive at the only major shopping center in Winter Park, Florida on a brisk day in the high-60’s (20’s for those playing along across the pond). The fake icicles would dangle from the transplanted evergreens as my friends and I walked out of the movie theater. After a wholesome evening, I would get in my car and drive home, pull into my driveway, and see my front yard lit up with lights and animatronic deer. Opening the front door, I’d find my parents sitting in front of a tree so tall it disturbed the cobwebs on our ceiling, the ones that even the broom couldn’t reach. The fantasy usually cut off here—I had never actually celebrated Christmas, so I had no clue what came after.
The guest list for our Christmas-themed holiday party is almost entirely Jewish, and so far none of them have taken offense to the theme or the blatant celebration of what is generally known as a Christian holiday. Christmas has taken on a new meaning within my Jewish community. Like Chanukah, the aesthetics of Christmas encourage closeness between friends, sharing of food and time, and most importantly, warmth in a cold season. Similarly, Chanukah is a festival celebrating the values of collaboration and unity and celebrated with lights and, like all Jewish holidays, good food. As American Jews, it makes perfect sense that we would combine two parts of a bifurcated identity and embrace the core values of the holiday season—celebration with friends and family, the warmth of community, and delicious food.