by Shira Cohen-Goldberg
“Abba, is Santa Claus real?” says my four-year-old from the back of the car. This is most certainly my child. I used to put cookies and milk out on the counter for Santa to take when he came to our house on Christmas Eve. In the morning, the cookies and milk were always eaten, cup rinsed out, plate washed and put away. We were Jewish, and I knew it. Santa did not being presents to our house. But why wouldn’t he want to stop at our house for a snack in between gift deliveries?
We are Jewish. No we don’t celebrate Christmas. And here, the words of my mom leak out of my mouth, as if rehearsed, as I explain to our son, “We don’t celebrate Christmas because we are Jewish,” with the addendum, “We celebrate other, really fun holidays, like Purim, and Sukkot and Chanukah!”
This is a tough time of year for people who do not celebrate Christmas. The lights and trees are beautiful. Belief in Santa Claus is a lovely secret that young children share with their parents until they stop believing. The abundance of wrapped gifts, cookies of all types, and cheerfulness of Christmas celebrators in general make this time of year very appealing. And finally, the wintertime fantasy of elves, magical toy workshops and sleigh rides feels like a welcome re-framing of the record-breaking Boston winter of 2015 when we were literally confined by snow: Boston’s very own North Pole.
This year, for the first time, my child was asked, “Is Santa coming to your house?” It is an even tougher time of year to be a parent to children who don’t celebrate Christmas. I am experiencing it firsthand. L’dor va’dor. From one generation to another. Christmas time is present for others. But it is not ours.
My husband and I choose to send our four-year-old to a non-Jewish school that provides him with the support he needs to grow emotionally, academically and socially. It is a good match for him, but few of his classmates are Jewish.
Now adults, creating a home together, my husband and I have a pride in being Jewish. With the last name Cohen-Goldberg, there no hiding who we are; only shouting it loud and proud. We are making a home for our children similar to the homes of our childhoods; where both sets of our parents strove to inculcate us with strong Jewish identities, despite the fact that most of our peers were not Jewish. As children, the rituals around being Jewish were either mundane or exciting, but they were ever-present.
The good news is that we, Jews, have SO MANY rituals. From the Shabbat that comes every week, to the gragger drowning out Haman’s name when the megillah is read on Purim, to the lighting candles on Chanukah. We have the ancient; we re-enact how the Kohen HaGadol (the high priest) prostrated himself on the ground on Yom Kippur, or the created, such as a tree-planting ceremony that my mom wrote and my family instituted upon the my birth and that of each of my siblings.
Our calendar ticks to the rituals of our Jewish clock. Not only do we Jews have abundant rituals, but we have abundant language and often songs to accompany them. I am devoted to Mayyim Hayyim for the many opportunities I have had to engage in new rituals and language that enrich my life and deepen who I am as a Jew. Maybe you are open on Christmas? Joke.
The last time I wrote, I shared my confounding struggle of being in the privileged position to choose my path, and realizing that at times, there is actually no choosing. To me, being Jewish on Christmas is not about choosing how to celebrate, not about how to create a ritual that will make our children as happy as those children who are celebrating Christmas. Being a Jew on Christmas is about being reminded again and again that it is not me celebrating this time. That this is not my holiday. That this is one that my children will be sitting out. Being a Jew on Christmas is about choosing to be Jewish, to raise Jewish children, in a world that nurtures, but also challenges me to remind my childhood self that Santa only stopped at my house for cookies and milk, and that was okay.
Shira M. Cohen-Goldberg is a long-time member of the Cambridge-Somerville Jewish community. She works as a literacy specialist at an educational non-profit focused on organizational change. She spends most of her time working and rearing her 4-year-old, Hallel, and toddler, Ya’ara, in partnership with her husband, Ari.