I loved Chanukah, and as a family we bigged it up, with a gift every night. But Christmas was everywhere, sparkly and exciting and magical, and I was not part of it. “We don’t do Christmas,” said my parents, and we didn’t.
I wasn’t bothered about turkey, and I assumed that mince pies were full of meat. But I was sad to be left out of the nativity play and carol service at school, where I was the only Jewish girl in my class. And I yearned for shiny decorations and — more than anything else — a tree. The beauty! The wonder! In the end my mother allowed me to help a neighbour hang baubles and tinsel and I loved every minute.
I definitely believed in Santa. Knowing that he was delivering gifts to other houses but not to ours, made me anxious (I may have mixed him up with the Angel of Death from seder night). Staring out of my bedroom window, on Christmas Eve, hoping for a glance of a flying sleigh, I wrestled with identity politics. How did Santa know to avoid our house? Could he see our mezuzah? Was I really so different from everyone else?
My grandma must have picked this up, because when I was around four years old she took me to see Santa at the local department store. I perched on Santa’s knee, and he boomed: “And what would you like me to bring when I come down your chimney?” I burst into tears, told him he wouldn’t be coming anywhere near my chimney, and besides I was a Jewish girl. Unfortunately, I used the word “juicy” instead of Jewish. Grandma never repeated the experiment.
So, when I became an adult, I was free to create my own kitsch festive fun, right? Wrong. My longing for Christmas fell away, like flimsy gift-wrapping. Instead I enjoy feeling calm and peaceful at this time of the year. While others complain of stress and exhaustion, I drift around, serenely picking a few Chanukah gifts.
While the lure of Christmas diminished, Chanukah graduated from a fun time for gifts and candles, to being the Jewish festival which means the most to me. It’s about strength, optimism and hopefulness, a light which lasts against the darkness of despair. It’s also about holding out against assimilation, even when it’s clad in seductive sparkles. Yes, I’m proudly British and Jewish — but Christmas is my boundary between the two. It’s a particularly important distinction this year, when, unusually, Chanukah starts on Christmas Eve.
My husband grew up in a family which embraced Christmas with gusto. He had a turkey dinner, Babycham and a whole pillow case for Santa to fill (a stocking wasn’t enough?). “When in Rome, do as the Romans do!” said his mum, although she drew the line at a tree, and didn’t accompany her sister to the church carol service. It took time to work out how to blend our different experiences.
But as our children grew we worked out our own December 25 tradition. We go for a walk on Hampstead Heath, and feast on spinach lasagne. We play Trivial Pursuit and we scoff After Eights. We might even pull a cracker or two.
But there’s no tree, no stockings or carols. We don’t do Christmas, and I hope none of us ever will.