Ghost of Christmas Past
Illustration by Kristina Micotti
When my husband, Greg, and I got engaged, we decided to raise our future kids in his faith, Judaism—rather than the Catholicism I was raised in. Although neither of us is particularly religious, we agreed we wanted the kids to have enough of a religious identity that they’d have something to reject in their 20s.
It was important to us to pass along Jewish cultural traditions. But because we live mainly among gentiles—my kids aren’t even aware of other Jews at their schools—I fretted about how we’d make the holiday season special in the face of Santa and his reindeer, Christmas trees, and—have mercy!—the Christmas Morning Gift Haul.
When Christmas isn’t your default, you really see how much it is the American cultural default—even now that it’s become standard to replace “Christmas” with “Holiday.” (We all know what you really mean, people.)
Well-meaning friends suggested we get a Hanukkah Bush. “There’s no such thing,” Greg scoffed. He insisted our kids would not feel deprived if we didn’t erect a chopped-down tree in our living room every year. In fact, he said, they wouldn’t suffer from missing out on Christmas at all, because Jewish kids in a gentile world catch on quickly that things are a little different in their own homes, and they don’t mind a bit.
It’s become standard to replace ‘Christmas‘ with ‘Holiday.‘ We all know what you really mean, people.
But I went about sneaking in as many Christmas traditions as I could, starting with Hanukkah Harry. Yes, that’s right, I appropriated an SNL skit to bring the kids the magic of Santa. On the first night of Hanukkah, Harry dropped eight gifts for each kid—waaay more than Santa brings.
I threw annual Hanukkah parties with latkes, Klezmer music, and gambling—er, dreidl—that were a lot like my family’s Christmas Eve festivities. We even got blue-and-white lights and a menorah decoration for the window.
But one day Georgia asked a Jewish woman if she had ever spied Hanukkah Harry, and the woman had no idea what she was talking about.
This was just one of many ways in which the ill-conceived Parallel Christmas failed, and the kids haven’t suffered a bit since I stopped trying to make Hanukkah something it’s not. (I suppose Greg was right. THIS ONCE.)
Still, I did find it oddly comforting that Georgia had waited several years to tell me about the woman who’d shattered the Hanukkah Harry myth—much like I’d pretended to believe in Santa for years after I knew the truth, to make sure “Santa” kept delivering.
I guess some holiday traditions are universal.