December Dilemma

Here I am with my sister on Santa's knee. Believe it or not, my Bubbe and Zaida had this displayed in their home. It was in the den, not the living room, though.

The weather has turned (California) cold and I even had to wear my down jacket all day today, instead of just during the usually frigid early morning hours. The distinct nip in the air can only mean one thing: Santa Claus is coming to town.

Throughout my years of working in Jewish schools, we always referred to what the rest of the world calls the Holiday Season as the December Dilemma. In other words, we came up with lesson plans and learning activities that addressed the feelings and concerns of our students, who supposedly felt left out by not celebrating a festival whose existence and promotion is utterly inescapable in the wider culture. Some of my students even knew kids from Hindu and Muslim families who celebrated Christmas, so “Why can’t we?” they wondered.

The other aspect of the December Dilemma curriculum involved reminding students that Hanukkah is not a Jewish Christmas, reviewing with them the holiday’s origin (which if you are going to be on the up and up about it with your students, means telling them of the darkness of a Jewish religious and cultural civil war, as well as of the miraculous light) and its various customs. I remember my students’ incredulous expressions when I explained to them that Hanukkah gift giving evolved as a way for American Jews to keep up with the Christmas-celebrating Joneses, and that children like them were once thrilled to receive a most modest present: a couple of coins – or even just nuts – with which to play the dreidl game.

What I never really shared with my students was that for me there actually is no December Dilemma. My philosophy is, as long as you know where the limits have been drawn, ie. no going to church or Christmas tree and/or so-called Hanukkah bush in the house, then why not go kosher whole hog in enjoying the Yuletide gaiety?

Our family keeps the celebration of Hanukkah very bare bones, yet meaningful. We do all the traditional stuff like lighting the candles, saying the blessings and singing songs, playing dreidl and eating greasy latkes and sufganiyot (jelly donuts). We don’t give our kids gifts other than chocolate and a little real gelt. For us, Hanukkah has nothing to do with Christmas.

That frees me up (I speak only about myself, as it has turns out that no one else in my family seems to like the Christmas season as much as I) to window shop the Christmas experience, both figuratively and literally. The reluctant shopper that I am is elated not to have to subject myself to the hell that is Christmas shopping. While other people attempt to appreciate the twinkling lights and cheerful decorations while trying to avoid being trampled at the mall, I, who have no stores to visit nor any duty to rack up seasonal credit card debt, can leisurely soak in the festive atmosphere.

Although my favorite Christmas song was first sung by Judy Garland in "Meet Me In St. Louis," I prefer Ol' Blue Eyes' rendition.

I am a complete sop when it comes to Christmas movies and music, but only the classic kind. If I Found Mommy Kissing Santa Claus comes on the radio, the station gets switched immediately. Not so for White Christmas, The Christmas Song, or my absolute favorite, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. The sounds of Noel are like a looping track in my head from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, at which point I am finished with my kosher Christmas for another year.

When I try to remember back to when I first drank the Yule-Aid, I recall scenes of my watching, like every North American kid growing up in the ’70s, A Charlie Brown Christmas and Frosty the Snowman. But I think it was my reading and watching The House Without A Christmas Tree, the first installment in the Addie Mills series by Gail Rock that got me into the Christmas spirit. Like all boob tube-addicted kids, I saw the made-for-TV before reading the book. At least it was decent YA literature, rather than Hollywood kitsch that got me hooked.

Addie pleads for a Christmas Tree, which her father (played by Jason Robards) does not want because it painfully reminds him of his late wife.

Obviously, anything religious about the holiday – say, Midnight Mass – is off limits (Okay, I will cop to having once watched it on TV when I was a kid and had a cold that made me too stuffed up to get to sleep). The Tannenbaum (interestingly, also a common Jewish last name), too, is verboten, its origins being pagan. That doesn’t mean that I don’t admire public ones, or even a few in private homes – but preferably after December 25th, so that I can give it the ersatz name of “New Year’s tree.”

I am just kidding about this, but Jewish immigrants to America from the FSU actually cling to their tree traditions, claiming that in Communist Russia there was no such thing as a Christmas tree, only a New Year’s tree. Their trees are decked out pretty much like the other kind, only they often have Star of David ornaments hanging from their boughs.

Once December 25th rolls around, I am pretty much Christmas-ed out and ready for the traditional Jewish observance of the day. Chinese food and a movie, of course. This longstanding practice is evidenced by theaters and Chinese restaurants packed with Jews on the day that Christ was born. I realized as a child how heimish Christmas could be when my mother took me to the movies and I recognized each and every yiddishe punim (shayneh or not) in the audience and in the concession line.

I am so pleased to see that this Jewish tradition, unlike some less entertaining and tasty minhagim, is one that has successfully been transmitted to the younger generation. A guy named Brandon Walker even wrote a song about it and put it on YouTube. If you are Jewish and have not yet embraced this custom, perhaps this just might persuade you to.

My only question, though, is why so many of these types of videos by young Jewish artists have to feature negative Jewish stereotypes and musicians dressed like Hasidic members of ZZ Top. Maybe it’s just the younger generation’s sensibility. In any case, the long beards are a nice Santa-esque touch.

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

A version of this post appeared as a “Local Voices” piece in j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, on December 11, 2009. It was titled, “Don’t fret, Chanukah enthusiasts – ’tis the season to enjoy it all,” and you can read it at:


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