The Ghost of My Christmases Past

I was inspired this weekend by Jjiraffe’s post this week about growing up with “It’s a Wonderful Life.” She, like me, has forgone Christmas for Hanukkah due to a loving, amazing Jewish husband. Even though I converted to Judaism 4 years ago and have been living Jewishly for easily over 10 years at this point…

It’s still really hard to let go of Christmas.

. . .

We still refer to the wandering spirit of Captain Marshall at the odd bump or noise in our house. But I think Capt. Marshall has been joined by another spirit, the Ghost of My Christmases Past.

I’m not really sure how to exorcise this ghost, either.

Ghost of Christmas Past

Seasons Greetings

In the same vein that I said that each holiday season is getting more difficult each year out from my diagnosis, I feel like my Yuletide nostalgia is directly proportional to the ever-shrinking size of obligatory Hanukkah end-cap displays in the store.

I had this realization a couple of years ago when I was standing in the middle of Target and basically had a temper-tantrum on the phone with Larry. I was standing in a sea of artificial Christmas trees, rows upon rows of bows and wrapping paper, dancing Santas and jolly snowmen… and there was literally A shelf of Hanukkah stuff. Some paltry bags of gelt, generic blue wrapping paper, and some chintzy blue gift bags with tacky Stars of David all over them. Larry said something to me I still remember to this day when I lamented at the complete disregard for Hanukkah anything in a store chain as big as Target:

“Keiko, it’s like this every year. This is what you signed up for.”

Ever since then, my longing for all things red, green and Christmas-y has only grown, while I light my menorah for eight nights every winter.

. . .

Here’s the thing. It’s not about missing this connection to the holy story of Jesus’s birth. No no no, let me be perfectly clear: I grew up with commercialized Christmas. The Christmas tree was the central point of my Christmas holiday growing up. Santa was my Savior.

Even though I felt like the Special Child when I got to place baby Jesus in the nativity scene on our mantel, that was my singular moment of religion during the Christmas season. Even the few times I went to midnight mass on Christmas eve, I was secretly running through my Christmas wish list in my head wondering what items I was actually going to get under the tree the next morning.

But for me, it’s the whole atmosphere of the season: the decorating, the ornaments, the tinsel, the stockings, and all those delightfully wrapped gifts. It’s about pulling out the ornaments from years past and selecting the choicest ones to join alongside the new ones bought for this year. It’s Christmas sweaters and warm fleece pajamas and slipper socks that make that funny sticky sound with each step on the kitchen floor. It was A Very Garfield Christmas and A Claymation Christmas and Santa pulling up to our block on a fire truck throwing tiny candy canes at the adoring, screaming kids on the corner. It was playing the newest video game or reading the newest book in the hours between opening gifts at 7am and until Christmas dinner was served. It was knowing I didn’t have to be back at school for another week.

I miss all of that.

. . .

I’ve been prodding Larry for the idea of next year buying a tiny little one foot Christmas tree, and putting my five totally non-religious ornaments on it.

“I’ll keep it in the pantry,” I said. “No one will ever have to see it!”

Larry shook his head. He just doesn’t understand having never grown up with Christmas and then having to give it up. I still do get to celebrate with my family. Tomorrow we’ll head to my sister’s and I get to spend Christmas with my adorable niece. But I think the issue is that it’s not my Christmas. It’s someone else’s.

I think part of this stems from finally having our own house. I live in the historic district in Salem, where there are annual Christmas House Tours through the Peabody Essex Museum. Various historical homes are chosen to be decorated in period Christmas fashion and their homes opened up to public tours. It’s a very lovely affair. All these quaint colonial-era homesteads dotted with wreathes and garland, windows with candles like white glowing jewels…

Even our house has a Christmas wreath on the door. Our downstairs neighbor celebrates Christmas, so we figured, hey- what the hell. Go ahead and put up that wreath. There’s no other decorations on our house.

This year I decided to move our electric menorah to a window facing the street, as if to say to the neighbors, “See! The Jews know how to decorate too!”

. . .

Any JBC’s (Jews-by-choice) out there reading my blog? Have any advice? Am I totally nuts here or is my Christmas longing warranted?

. . .

And to all: a bright and festive Hanukkah and a warm and joyous Christmas this weekend!

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  1. Rachel says

    I was born Jewish…my mom converted…but I still love Christmas and all the decorations, the tree…etc…I don’t think my Mom’s family celebrating it had anything to do with why I love it so’s just pretty!!! I used to ask my mom for a tree every year when I was little, and she never caved. LOL. So I TOTALLY understand where you’re coming from! I’m sure a LOT of people so!
    The one thing that puts me off of Christmas though, is how loony people get at this time of year!!! Decidedly unChristmas-like spirit of the people at the grocery store yesterday buying their Christmas dinner fixins! :D I don’t like that part of Christmas. :D

    • Keiko says

      Hi Rachel, thanks for commenting. I think you’re right – I think part of my longing has to do with just how much better Christmas decorations are compared to Hanukkah decorations ;)

      I hope you have a lovely last full day of Hanukkah and best wishes for the New Year!

      • Rachel says

        Thanks Keiko!!!

        I got amazing Hanukkah decorations at Party City….a really cool 20″ tinsel “Star Of David” wreath (that I hung over the fireplace), and these great foil decorations that hang from the ceiling and have dreidels, menorahs and Jewish stars on the end.

        I would have gotten more tinsel (in blue and white), or even some lights but my husband (who is way more Jewy than me, clearly) seemed uncomfortable. :D

        Maybe that’s something to do for next year? It definitely made it feel more festive for me. And I read this whole article that was talking about how even if it’s just us and our spouse, that we are still a family and that we should start our traditions and celebrate these “family” oriented holidays because we are already a family. :) I liked that idea a lot and it helped me through Hanukkah, and not focus so much on not having children.

        I hope you had a wonderful Hanukkah too!!!

  2. Jenney says

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while, but have never commented until now. I am Jewish by birth, but my dad was raised Catholic (and never has converted). As a child we always celebrated Christmas with his family, and later as a teen I felt a longing for all the twinkly lights and the beautiful tree as well. It can be a little lonely around this time of year when everyone you know is so caught up in all the beauty (and it IS beautiful) of Christmas. My suggestion is to really do up Hannukah in your home. Get yourself some twinkly white and blue lights and some tasteful Hannukah decorations and decorate your fireplace, or another location in your home. The fact that Hannukah decorations are so few and far between makes it like a treasure hunt to find them! Also, I’d suggest really making Hanukah a special time for you and your husband…maybe giving each other small gifts each of the eight nights, or making special dinners. I don’t know if the longing for Christmas will ever go away…to be honest I still envy it a little…but you can make your own winter holiday just as special and exciting.

    • Keiko says

      Jenney, thank you so much for commenting and delurking :) Welcome! It’s wonderful to have you here.

      I love this: “The fact that Hannukah decorations are so few and far between makes it like a treasure hunt to find them!”

      Challenge accepted :) That is a great way to think about how to play up the holiday. I think that’s been my biggest problem- I just need to make the holiday more US and less “I wish it was Christmas.” Wonderful suggestions and advice. And a lovely last full day of Hanukkah to you!

  3. Jen says

    JBC here! Giving up Christmas was where I drew the line with my Rabbi in my conversion process. She said absolutely now Christmas, I said there’s no way I’m going to NOT be with my family when they gather and celebrate once a year. This has nothing to do with Jesus, it’s family. Also, it’s MY history and my life. Last year, we got a tree. A little one. My heart was breaking from infertility, and I needed comfort. Laying on my couch, staring at those lights and ornaments and breathing in the piney scent equals home and comfort for me. It’s beautiful. It’s joyful. It’s hopeful. Again, it has nothing to do with Jesus. And, DH tolerates it pretty well. He understands how I feel, even though the tree is completely foreign to him.

    As we continue to discuss how to build our family, and adoption looks like a serious option, I feel LESS tied to strict boundaries at Christmas. We’re a blended family, and we will be even more blended, most likely, in the future. We may have a child who has a different cultural heritage, and who wants to celebrate that alongside our menorah and tree. Who knows.

    Anyways, I think it’s perfectly normal to miss Christmas. It’s a huge part of childhood, and something that we can never truly give up in our hearts. Finding a way to practice, take care of yourself, and find comfort during the holidays isn’t easy. Be gentle on yourself.

    • Keiko says

      Jen, thank you so much for your kind words and sharing your story and perspective. I think it’s more about the decorating than anything else. And you’re right – it is joyful, and hopeful and beautiful. Hanukkah can be too, it’s just about figuring out how to find that for myself.

      Wishing you all the best as you consider adoption – a wonderful last full day of Hanukkah and a bright New Year!

  4. says

    I’m not JBC (despite the fact that I serially dated Jewish men in college and grad school) and though my husband’s father was Jewish, we celebrate Christmas. But your post made me think about a video two of my former students did just this week: … right now they’re just dating and neither one of them has converted, and it’ll be interesting to see how they navigate this in the future if they end up together more permanently.

    I’ll just point out, though, that what you miss is really more about the pagan holiday of Yule than it is about Christmas. I wonder if you could celebrate the solstice instead, which is more scientific than religous, as a compromise? There’s also the new secular humanist holiday called HumanLight that borrows from some of the pagan traditions (no Santa, but a Tree of Knowledge!) to celebrate reason, hope, and compassion … it was started by atheists, as far as I can tell, but it is appealing to celebrate for lots of reasons, especially to a UU like myself. (the website could use some help, but there’s information if you poke around enough) … though the holiday itself is areligious, maybe there’s even a way to integrate it into a Hanukkah celebration?

    • Keiko says

      Justine, thank you so much for posting a link to that video. Adorable. I’m definitely intrigued to follow along in their story! :)

      And of course I’m drawn to Yule. Like, it’s an apple falling from the tree moment, as soon as I read what you wrote. Pagan holidays, the Divine Feminine… it’s like one great big circle with me, I swear. I’m not Pagan, but I see G-d more as Shekinah as opposed to Avinu Malkeinu. So it’s no surprise then that I’m drawn to all the truly pagan elements of Christmas.

  5. says

    I’m laughing out loud at this: “I’ll keep it in the pantry!” Hee.

    I definitely think that Christmas full-on won the war a few years ago. I definitely remember more choices with the Hannukah decorations. This year, seriously, there was nothing. I had to resort to “Hannukah Crackers” with tacky stars on them. But they ended up being kinda fun.

    Which is kind of where I am with Hannukah. I go through every emotion possible with Christmas: loss, envy, grief, joy. And every year, Hannakah ends up being more fun than I think it will.

    It’s a hard, hard thing to not celebrate Christmas after you’ve grown up with it. And, it is a loss.

    Great post. You put this dilemma into words so beautifully.

    • Keiko says

      Thanks Jjiraffe :) I hope you had a wonderful Hanukkah this year, despite the crackers. You’re right – it IS a loss. Thinking of it that way allows me to let it go more easily (I hope- still have a year to go until we go through this again) as opposed to clinging to something that perhaps I really should just let go of already.

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