My childhood memories of the Winter holidays are a combination of Chanukah and Christmas. My father’s family is Jewish while my mother’s is Christian, and despite the fact that my mother converted to Judaism prior to my birth, we still celebrated Christmas — at least secular, family-based, gift-giving side of the holiday — with her side of the family.
I have two pretty distinct memories of Christmas as a child. One year, I was so excited I leaped into bed at my mother’s mother’s house, whom we call Mammy, that I cleared the bed and went head first into the headboard. A concussion and some stitches later, we returned to Mammy’s house and Christmas was pretty normal after that.
The other memory I recall is maybe the first or second Christmas that my cousin celebrated with us after her birth. I have a fairly small family and, as a result, didn’t (and don’t) have a lot of experience with babies, but I remember that year and watching her tear open presents only to be more interested in the ribbons and bows that she was in whatever it was that she had just opened.
I also have some more recent memories of times when Christmas and Chanukah overlapped when my immediate family would gather around the menorah in the window and sing prayers in Hebrew while my grandparents respectfully remained silent to witness our rituals. Shortly thereafter, we’d turn on the Christmas tree and Mammy’s nativity scene (which lit up even if the invention of inflatable lawn abominations hadn’t yet occurred) making for what had to be a somewhat surprising interfaith image from the street.
Christmas was always secular for my immediate family. Even my mother didn’t attend church, though her parents would in the early evening. After the birth of their children, my aunt and uncle would also attend church on Christmas morning and we’d join them and their family for lunch and the afternoon. We worked together to make sure everyone was able to observe the spiritual rituals they were moved to celebrate while also gathering together as a family.
Likely because we were raised Jewish as opposed to Christian, Chanukah looms a little larger in my memory that Christmas. As I think of it, Christmas sort of blends into one amalgamated holiday for me lacking a spiritual dimension. Chanukah, though, is more reverential to me; more spiritual. I recall a number of Chanukahs around my father’s mother’s (Grandma’s) dinner table with aunts and uncles and cousins all crammed into a relatively tiny dining room consuming latkes and other traditional dishes for the holiday.
Despite the historical narrative of Chanukah (i.e. the rebellion of the Maccabees and the miracles associated with the burning of too-little oil in the Temple), our focus — like with the other half of my family — was more on the family even if the rituals celebrated during Chanukah lent it more “weight,” religiously speaking, than Christmas.
Interestingly, one of my most distinct memories of a Chanukah present was the year my mother got me Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. This was the same year that, only a few months before, she had also purchased me Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner and I remember her commenting that she thought I would like the former because I was interested in the latter!
Now, as a Pagan, I don’t have many memories for the holiday of Yule. Despite celebrating the Wheel of the Year for the last fifteen years, Yule remains the Sabbat that is Most Likely to be Skipped. For a good chunk of those years, I lived in Illinois while my family remained in Pennsylvania, so the timing of the Winter Solstice frequently coincided with a road trip back to the East Coast or the preparations for it.
Even this year, despite my partner’s work schedule keeping her busy straight through the week of Christmas, my family is visiting on the weekend of the solstice so I’m not sure if I’ll have the time and the privacy I prefer for my observations. It always seems like there’s too many other things going on and responsibilities to meet to give Yule the time it deserves.
At the moment, my partner and I don’t intend on having children (other than the four-legged or no-legged kind) in the near-term, but we have talked about how we would raise them. While we don’t always agree on everything with respect to our spiritualities (she’s Catholic, by the way), one thing we agree on is that a respect for others’ beliefs and practices. I hope that, should we start a family, that we can instill within our children not only a respect for the celebrations that we as a family enjoy, but also those of the Jewish people, whose heritage my children would share even if none of us practice Judaism, and for the beliefs and practices of others not related to us.
In other words, I hope that my potential family of the future will continue the traditions of my childhood in working together to try and make sure that we all have very happy holidays.
And, I wish you all the same!