Since I moved to St. Louis, December has become a time of choosing between a harmless lie that allows everyone to leave a low-stakes social interaction in high spirits, and a truth that usually results in a feel-bad moment of awkwardness. So why do I keep choosing the latter?
For many years, my relationship with Christmas was terrifically unfraught. That’s an understatement: I loved Christmas and loved it in an exceptionally uncomplicated way for an Orthodox Jew. Every year, I looked forward to the day when I would traipse into my piano lesson with the very Catholic Mrs. Cafarelli and see her Christmas tree in all its majesty. And every year, my mom and I had a ritual. Sometime after Thanksgiving, we would drive across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan, where we would get hot chocolate and then walk to FAO Schwarz (“this is a museum,” she would say, as my eyes grew wide). Afterward, we would make our way down to Rockefeller Center, with pit stops at Babyland, where one could witness Cabbage Patch babies being born straight from the patch itself, and at Saks, where we admired the animatronic windows. Nothing I loved about this ritual had anything to do with religion. It had to do with shiny things and happy people, with upbeat songs about eating pie and making snowmen. I loved the commercialization of Christmas, the aesthetic splendor of it, not the thing itself.
In college and as a young professional, that relationship remained uncomplicated. In my first job, the office was almost as quiet on Yom Kippur as it was on Christmas. My apartment lobby on the Upper West Side boasted a medium evergreen and a giant menorah. I loved walking around the neighborhood on Dec. 25, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, not minding one bit when they wished me the same. It felt like when you’re at Disney World and they tell you to “Have a Magical Day” — just a happy exchange between people bursting with goodwill.
Then I moved to St. Louis for graduate school. For the first time, I met people who had never had a Jewish friend, let alone an Orthodox one. One December, at an end-of-semester gathering, I casually mentioned how much I loved Christmas music. “Ah,” said another student, “so you celebrate!” “No … no, we’re Jewish and we … don’t celebrate … Christmas,” I replied, trying to sound chill and cheerful. “Oh, but you have a tree.”
Look, I know that some Jews have Christmas trees (there are lots of ways to be Jewish), but the Jew who skips class for Shemini Atzeret is unlikely to be one of them. I was flummoxed that my new friend was unaware of my kind of Jew, the kind who won’t answer your late-in-the-day Friday email until Saturday night but sometimes listens to Trombone Shorty’s “O Holy Night” on repeat. I had assumed that everybody understood that there was a difference between the festive appurtenances of the holiday and the holiday itself, that there was a part of Christmas that could be for everyone and that non-Christians could claim that part while declining the rest. Her continued questioning, aimed at sussing out the exact nature of my connection to Christmas, made me feel almost traitorous to my own religious tradition.
Eventually, I came to realize that my early experience — of non-Jewish friends and co-workers who understood my religious background, sometimes more fully than I understood theirs — was historically and culturally atypical. Growing up in the predominantly Jewish and heavily Orthodox town of Teaneck, N.J., I never felt like a religious minority. Our big holidays came in the fall, when canvas huts covered with bamboo were erected in almost every backyard for Sukkot, and in the spring, when our parents overhauled their kitchens for Passover. Hanukkah, in our neck of the woods, was a fun but comparatively minor affair.
So I was surprised when, shortly after my husband and I moved to St. Louis, my mother-in-law invited us over to help decorate for Hanukkah. My family always prominently displayed our lit menorahs, but I had never seen shiny garlands and window decals featuring dreidels and menorahs. It felt like a weird, sad mimicry of Mrs. Cafarelli’s tree prep.
After living through almost 10 Midwest winters, my view has changed. Starting in November, I start to see almost daily Facebook posts by moms asking how they can make Hanukkah more special for their children, who already envy the Christian holiday. Here, Christmas is omnipresent, a thing I practically have to fend off, and not just a delightful bauble to spend a day ogling across the river. While I’m still not completely sold on the Hanukkah hype, I find myself more sympathetic to the impulse to showcase our culture, which seems almost invisible. I still answer greetings of “Merry Christmas” with a jolly “Merry Christmas to you!” but when asked how I or my children plan to celebrate, I find myself choosing the awkward truth over easy silence, which has come to feel like a sociable lie.
These days, it feels necessary to affirm my difference in a way it didn’t when I lived in New Jersey. But that break isn’t clean, or total. Growing up in the suburbs of St. Louis, my children will have their own Christmas memories and traditions. For the past couple of years, we have gone on a nighttime drive to see a locally famous house, festooned top to bottom with an elaborate light installation. A sign instructs passersby to tune their radios to a station that plays holiday music, which syncs up with the blinking colors. The kids love it. We sit and take it in. Then we head back home, where shiny dreidels and latkes hang in all the windows.