Take what you like, leave the rest
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It's almost Christmas, and I'm the happiest little Jew in San Francisco. Well, OK. Half Jew. Semi-Semite. Hebrew-speaking nogophile with a passion for sleek menorahs and gaudily decorated pine trees.
Yup, I'm that special kind of American hybrid created by a Christian mom and a Jewish dad and not just the usual Jewish-as-Jewish-can-be dad, but the kind whose family has also been celebrating Christmas for generations. (Dad said it's because Christmas might as well be a national holiday. I have a theory about assimilation ... but that's another story.) Which means I have tons of experience appreciating both Judeo-Christian wintertime holidays, and also appreciating only the best parts of both.
With Mom, a music major who was skeptical about organized religion but always spiritual, Christmas has only ever been about Jesus inasmuch as the hymns that mention him are pretty. And since she spent my childhood years single, our Christmas traditions were based on convenience and good company takeout Chinese and silly Blockbuster comedies on Christmas Eve rather than convention. And with über-Reform Dad, it was traditional ornaments on a Douglas fir inside the house (yay, Christmas!) and blue lights hanging from the eaves outside (yay, Hanukkah!). But the holidays and their particular ways of celebrating them were always important to both my parents; and, not surprisingly, to me.
Of course, I learned all the crappy things about the holidays too: obligatory gifts (given and received), obligatory time spent with relatives you hate, and obligatory good moods when you feel like burning the tree right down. Bad Muzak. Obnoxious store displays. Unashamed consumerism that's as sickening as too much Manischewitz. And that's not even mentioning the annoying and arbitrary elevation of Hanukkah to a significant holiday so spoiled Jewish kids don't envy their spoiled gentile friends.
But despite all that, and thanks to my upbringing, I've learned to love the parts of the holidays that are worth loving: twinkling lights and candles, the scents of greenery and cinnamon, perfectly crisp latkes and perfectly iced sugar cookies, and the fact that most people are at least trying to think of someone other than themselves, whether it's starving Somalian strangers or their own significant others.
In fact, it wouldn't be hard to argue that I've become more attached to this time of year than my parents ever were. As a kid, I'd get so sad when Christmas was over that my mom would keep a tiny tree in my room until February. And I continued celebrating Hanukkah with my college friends long after my Dad's stepfamily lost interest. This year I fully expect to attend at least one progressive Hanukkah celebration, as well as burden my roommates with tinsel-covered shrubbery for at least a month. I'm also making my gifts and getting my St. Nick suit ready for some Santarchy on Dec. 15.
Which is to say, I face this holiday season as our guide does with a good dose of ambivalence and skepticism, and an equal dose of cheer and goodwill. We hope it'll help you do the same. May your gifts come from your heart, your celebrations feed your soul, and your attempts to ignore this season's drawbacks kick some serious ass. *