The ghosts of Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa

Now that it has been a month since the crazy winter holiday period… time for some reflection!

Is it okay for Jews to celebrate non-Jewish traditions? What about for Jews-by-choice? Can they celebrate the holidays of different religions? Or, of the religion they willingly left behind? Is it okay for “ex-Christians” to celebrate Christmas?

They say that one of the most difficult things to give up when converting from Christianity to Judaism is Christmas. Usually, if you are raised in a Christian family, Christmas is the highlight of the year: preparing the Christmas tree and the nativity scene, going to mass at midnight and dining with the entire family day and night.

Personally, I come from an interfaith family (Catholic mom and Jewish dad), which could more accurately be defined as secular. I don’t remember going to mass for Christmas Eve. But, instead of celebrating Hanukkah, we would celebrate Christmas with my father’s side of the family (the Jewish side!). Together, we would recreate the nativity scene and decorate the Christmas tree. I can vividly remember the tree’s fragrant smell, bright colors, and beautiful lights!

When I converted to Judaism and married my Jewish husband, I made a point of not having a Christmas tree in our apartment. Of course I missed it, but – to me – having a colorful tree alongside Hanukkah candles seemed like cheating.

Plus, I immediately loved Hanukkah. I loved the lights, the colorful candles, and the smell of the candles burning. I wholeheartedly embraced this new holiday tradition. I learned the blessings and songs, and even hosted a Hanukkah party at our place!

After my amazing Hanukkah festivities, my husband, my mother, and I flew to my hometown of Palermo, Italy. While there, we decided to break the rules a little and celebrate Christmas.

We had Christmas Eve dinner in Italy with family and friends, surrounded by Santa Claus statues and a tall colorful, lit tree. On Christmas day, we went for a walk in the city center, with at least half of the city’s population. People were cheerful, holiday lights hung from every balcony, and everything felt…normal!

This year, I also decided that if I was going to celebrate Christmas, why not go even further and explore another winter tradition I recently learned more about? Why not celebrate Kwanzaa too?

A few years earlier, I started taking West African Dance classes. Around November, my friends began to talk about the “Kwanzaa show” and how they were excited to celebrate Kwanzaa. I was curious, and decided to buy a ticket for that year’s show. At the show, I learned that this holiday tradition was born within the African American community, and is celebrated for one week at the end of December. Kwanzaa is based on seven principles, including unity, collective work, responsibility, and faith. Throughout the holiday, each of these ideas is represented lighting a 7-branch candelabra. Sound familiar?

This past fall, I registered for a class with the Coyaba Dance Theater so I could learn new choreography perform at the Dance Place’s 2017 Kwanzaa Show. The dancers in this group were a group of people from varying religious backgrounds – Jews, Christians, and Muslims – who worked hard in order to put together a show and celebrate, together with the local community, this spiritual tradition of Kwanzaa.

Rather than feeling guilty for celebrating a non-Jewish holiday, I felt enriched! I started to think about what an amazing opportunity it is to live in a place where you can be exposed to so many different customs and cultures.

At the same time, I wondered about the importance of preserving your own tradition and beliefs. I started to consider why this year felt so different for me than in the past. I realized, that this year, I felt like a Jew. I finally felt ready to celebrate other religious festivities because I was confident in my personal relationship to Judaism. I felt ready to  face the “ghost of my Kwanzaa future” and tell it that although I am happy to meet and learn about it, I would never fully embrace it as my own. And I could face the “ghost of my Christmas past” and tell it, with a serene mind, that despite its charm, I was finally ready to let it go.  

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About the Author: Daniela is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you! She is a “retired philosopher” who works as an executive assistant and loves to write about Italian and Jewish events happening in DC. She was born and raised in Sicily (Italy) in an interfaith family and moved to D.C. with her husband after studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where they met. They have a wonderful Siberian cat named Rambam! Daniela loves going to work while listening to Leonard Cohen’s songs and sometimes performs in a West African Dance group

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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