When I was twenty-one, I fell in love with Santa Claus.
Growing up Orthodox Jewish, my initial understanding of Christmas was that it was a goyishe holiday that put us chosen kids at an unholy disadvantage because it involved majorly impressive gifts. Yeah, sure we got eight gifts for Hannukah, but all but one of them were small and my mom said that Hannukah wasn’t that important anyway – people just liked to pretend it was because it occurred close to Christmas each year.
Then when I was a senior in college, my best friend from home went through an especially rough break-up, and I joined her family for Christmas. Yes, I discovered the joy that comes with presents you’ve been dreaming of for the last 365 days (or in my case, twenty-one years). But I also discovered a holiday full of family traditions, entirely too much food, and even more laughter. One year my friend’s dad made us all matching t-shirts to wear to the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet we went to in Amish Country each Christmas Eve. We watched Bruce Almighty, Love Actually, and went to bed in our brand new matching pajamas.
This year was the first year I spent Christmas with my boyfriend’s family. While the emphasis fell less on the food, there was just as much on the family time – decorating the tree together, sitting around said tree and opening presents one by one, playing with the dog, watching the basketball game. I insisted Bryan and I give each other PJs on Christmas Eve.
My mom once said to me that she didn’t want her grandkids celebrating Christmas “because no kid who celebrates Christmas ever grows up with a strong sense of Jewish identity.” Putting all other problems with that comment aside, Christmas does not pose the great threat to Judaism she (or any other Jew for that matter) imagines. In the five years I’ve celebrated it, the most important thing I’ve learned is that you can have holidays that are truly focused on spending time with the ones you love and finding new and exciting ways to express said love each year. And if you are going to instill any sort of identity or set of values in someone, that is pretty goddamn good way to do it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that there aren’t any number Jewish holidays that don’t achieve the same sensibilities that I’ve experienced each Christmas. But I’m still working out exactly what it means for me to be a Jew. And I’m not convinced it can’t involve Santa Claus.