My Very Jewish Christmas

Celebrating Holiday Helped Family Assimilate in America

Joy to the World: Abigail Jones sits on Santa’s lap as a child. She explains how celebrating Christmas was a tradition that helped her Jewish ancestors fit in to American life.
courtesy of abigail jones
Joy to the World: Abigail Jones sits on Santa’s lap as a child. She explains how celebrating Christmas was a tradition that helped her Jewish ancestors fit in to American life.

By Abigail Jones

Published December 12, 2012, issue of December 21, 2012.
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“It was an unbelievably fabulous, fabulous day,” my mother recounted. “But what I experienced was not unusual at the time. I was not the only Jewish girl who grew up with a Christmas tree in Scarsdale. Most of my friends celebrated it as a secular holiday, and we felt sorry for the few that didn’t — and they felt sorry for themselves.”

When my mother was old enough, she was called upon to read aloud from “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” at the family dinner. I can hear her now: “[Santa] exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

I can just imagine my mother’s delight at hearing this final line, but of course, the significance of “Yes, Virginia” goes beyond her namesake. At the heart of the Sun’s editorial lie the humanistic values that Christmas represented for German Jews — the love, kindness and generosity that brought my family together around the Christmas tree for generations.

These days, my sister is married and I am engaged, and we are both figuring out how to incorporate the traditions of our childhood into the families we are building. To a certain extent, the mass production of Christmas that began in earnest in the 20th century has spread so seamlessly into American culture that even Jewish culture has been transformed; “Chrismukkah,” Hanukkah bushes and Hanukkah Harry are now just as recognizable as Christmas trees and Santa Claus. But for me they are not the same thing.

I would like to have a Jewish home, and I want to raise my children Jewish, but I also want them to taste the enchanting experiences of Christmas that have been passed down to me. I want them to make the homemade version of the Restaurant School Special, from West Philadelphia’s Koch’s Deli, and leave it out for Santa Claus (because that’s my fiancé’s favorite sandwich). I want them to hang stockings with bells at the toes. To make their own ornaments. To sing Elvis Christmas songs. It matters less to me what we do and more that we do it. Because mostly, I want them to experience that incredible, irreplaceable feeling of waking up on Christmas morning, sprinting downstairs and discovering that Santa really has come. And I want them to understand that our Christmas has as much to do with that very magic moment as it does with generations of their own Jewish family legacy.

Abigail Jones is the digital features editor of the Forward. She can be contacted at jones@forward.com and on Twitter @AbigailDJ


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