The Dybbuk of Christmas Past
By Matthew Kassel
Christmas doesn’t mean much to me anymore, though for the first ten years of my life, it was my favorite holiday. Pretty standard, even for a Jewish child, to be drawn in with eager spirit by that yuletide festivity. But you might wonder: why only ten years?
In my fourth year of elementary school, my parents decided that our family would stop celebrating Christmas, and that abrupt halt, to me, signaled the end of an era. Why were we, a secular Jewish family, celebrating this holiday in the first place? Well, as a child, my mom adored Christmas; she celebrated the holiday every year with her paternal grandmother. (My grandfather, her dad, converted to Judaism for my grandmother, a child of Depression-era Brownsville.)
Growing up, my mom was drawn in by the whole Christian aesthetic—not the Jesus stuff, but the sentimentality, the songs, the cookies. I think she wanted to share that with me and my brother and my dad, because it was a part of her.
We observed Hanukkah as a cultural rite, with a menorah and prayer and latkes. (We still do.) But I remember savoring Christmas more—the mystery and excitement of it all—and it’s hard for me to explain why my parents put an end to it. There was the obvious monetary challenge of doing two gift-heavy holidays at once. Then there remained the more ambiguous reason. We were becoming a Jewish family—my brother had just had his bar mitzvah—and celebrating Christmas didn’t seem to make sense anymore. That’s not to say I wanted it to stop at the time, but I don’t remember putting up any sort of fight.
My mom has a funny and slightly sad anecdote from her childhood. As a young girl, she asked her mother if their family was “church” or “temple.” When my grandmother authoritatively replied with a “temple,” my mom got upset, telling her that wasn’t what she wanted. Too bad, my grandmother replied. That’s the way it is.
I remember waking up the first morning without Christmas and feeling this sort of emptiness that, in retrospect, reads as slightly funny and slightly tragic at the same time. The mystery was gone. It was too bad, as my grandmother might put it. But a new mystery had been put in its place.
For a few years after my parents put an end to Christmas, we still put stockings on the mantle the night before. It wasn’t the same without the tree, the morning excitement, the gleeful gentility of it all. I figured, with some regret, that we couldn’t go back. But frankly, I’m not sure if I’d want to now, even though I still envy the holiday.
Christmas is, however tenuously, a part of my past. I can’t ignore it. I’m still drawn in by the anticipation, the cozy insularity of the holiday. The difference for the last thirteen years of my life has been that Christmas now makes me feel like an outsider.
What I didn’t know that first morning I woke up without Christmas was that the combined absence and presence of a holiday I had come to love, the push and pull of two opposing yet highly enmeshed worlds, could have, for the first time in my life, presented me with a clue to what being Jewish might mean.