I’ll be the first to admit that I hate the holidays.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Ebenezer Scrooge, but I don’t care for the cold, the stress, and the mounting pressure to find those around me the perfect gift. Once, the illusion of Santa Claus was ruined for me when my childhood best friend told me it was my parents, not Santa Claus, bringing us presents. The image of my parents sneaking down on Christmas Eve to pull presents out of their year-long hiding places just ruined it for me.
The year 2018 marked a major changing point in my life: I was mid-conversion to Judaism and found the holidays were fast approaching. I was overwhelmed and unsure how to navigate the opposing traditions of Christmas and Hanukkah. I was preoccupied with and torn on the following questions:
“Should I skip Christmas to prove my commitment to my conversion?”
“Will my non-Jewish family, friends, and coworkers understand if I don’t participate in Christmas?”
“Will my newly adopted Jewish family, friends, and Rabbis understand if I do participate in Christmas?”
When you think about it, Christmas around the world is not just one day. Christmas is celebrated for almost two months here in the United States (sorry, Thanksgiving!). We have elf on the shelf, Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas, and let’s not forget that Starbucks releases their Holiday cups and menu in early November. There was no escaping Christmas for me—I could not go into a mall, turn on the TV/radio, or even walk down the street without having Christmas shoved in my face.
I was struggling to come to terms with all that I would be leaving behind. My lifelong holiday memories centered around my family’s Christmas traditions. I’ll never forget my grandparent’s annual Christmas Eve party filled with the maternal and paternal sides of family as well as neighbors and longtime family friends. Another tradition that stood out to me was receiving a new ornament from my mother each year and the resulting fights with my sisters. We fought to ensure our ornament had prime real estate on the Christmas tree, which meant front and center for us. Most recently during the Christmas holiday, my family would share mimosas and reminisce on how my grandparents always gave us the same socks, scarves and kitchen gadgets, year after year.
Christmas was never about religion in my family. There was no Jesus in a manger or midnight Mass, so why was I flooded with so many questions from others? I was questioned on how my family was dealing with my conversion and if I was going to skip Christmas celebrations with them. The questioning crowd would greet me with raised eyebrows and looks of confusion when all I managed to muster was, “I don’t know yet.” And at the time, I didn’t have answers to their questions.
Was it a big deal if I celebrated Christmas with my family, or was I destined to eat Chinese food and attend the movies on the 25th of December? All I knew at the time was that I did not have the answers figured out for myself, which meant I surely didn’t know how to respond to the well-intended questions from others.
I decided to contact two Rabbis whom I trust: Rabbi Stephanie Bernstein who oversaw my conversion class and Rabbi Evan Krame who oversaw my conversion. Rabbis Bernstein and Krame made it clear that celebrating Christmas did not make me any less Jewish. They reminded me that I decided to convert to Judaism, but my family did not. Their wise and comforting counsel let me relinquish the shame I felt about wanting to celebrate Christmas with my family. I found the courage and space to have both Christmas and Hanukkah traditions in my life; I did not have to sacrifice one set of traditions for the other. Ultimately, I was reassured that if my decision was good enough for the Rabbis in my life, then it was also good enough for me and everyone around me.
If you are converting or newly converted, I am not here to tell you how you should or shouldn’t celebrate the holidays during and/or after your conversion to Judaism. Conversion is a personal process and you must trust yourself and your gut instincts. What I do suggest is that you articulate to your family and friends that you are navigating new and exciting traditions and ask them to be more supportive and less judgmental until you figure out what being Jewish means to you. Follow the path that gives you the greatest peace of mind and ask for acceptance and tolerance from the Jews and Christians around you
It is 2019 and my apathy for the holidays has not diminished; however, I feel immense gratitude to be able to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah with those I love. I am confident in my decision to adopt holiday traditions from both faiths. I enjoy finding ways to merge my old Christmas identity with my new identity as a Jew. This year I hosted a Tacky Sweater Party and represented my Jewish faith by wearing a Hanukkah sweater. I also teamed with my office to adopt underprivileged kids for Christmas. Most importantly, I will spend the holiday season with both of our families, indulging in all that Christmas and Hanukkah have to offer (which means loads of Christmas cookies and latkes!).
PS…If you are a latke expert, please share your recipes!
About the Author: Jillian Stringer is an account executive in the Intellectual Property sector by day and food/wine enthusiast by night. When she’s not wedding planning or working, she can be found cooking or playing mahjong and canasta. She lives in DC along with her fiancé and their house plants.
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