Christmas as a Jew-to-Be
Today is Christmas. As someone who is in the process of converting to Judaism, — and blogging about it here — this is the first Christmas that I won’t be celebrating. Since just after Halloween — when the Christmas decorations started appearing all over stores, and when the Christmas music began playing everywhere from Duane Reade to Barney’s — I’ve been “in training” for how to mark the holiday as a Jew.
Two years ago was the first time in my New York life that I picked a fresh Christmas tree from a seller on the street. I was living with roommates on the Upper West Side and my Jewish partner amused me by patiently waiting for me to select the perfect tree, barter with the seller, and lug it home, over our shoulders. She watched as my roommates and I acted like small children with twinkles in our eyes as we decorated the tree with white lights and carefully selected ornaments. When we were finished, we admired our handy work with glasses of wine in hand. I casually asked her if she’d had a tree growing up; she had not. Why would she? She’s Jewish.
If I’d known that that tree would have been my last tree I would’ve taken more pictures of it. Instead I thought nothing of it as I took it down a few weeks later.
I was never a very religious Christian. I didn’t think of Christmas as anything other than a time to give and receive presents. To be honest, the tree thing is what I’m missing the most, if only for the memories it holds. My mother always had the most beautiful Christmas trees — this year she has three. They’re always beautifully decorated according to a color scheme picked out months earlier. She puts up her tree the day after Thanksgiving, at the very latest. While most of the U.S. is elbowing for deals at malls my mother has Luther Vandross’ Christmas album playing loudly and she decorates her trees.
This year, I remind myself that Christmas no longer belongs to me. While I’m doing okay with that realization, I’ve wondered these past weeks what not having Christmas means as a Jew-to-be. I’ve done an iTunes makeover and removed the Christmas carols — my second favorite thing about the holiday — that have or mention Jesus, Christ, saviors, angels, miracles, holiness or stars. I considered buying an evergreen garland for my apartment, reasoning to my rabbi that the smell was nice and that it had nothing to do with Christmas. She told me she wouldn’t judge what I did but reminded me that it wasn’t very Jewish. I decided against it.
Right now, there there is nothing in my apartment that suggests I was ever Christian, and many things that do not suggest, but rather declare, my Judaism. The mezuzzah that hangs at my door, the hamsa on my wall, the second mezzuzah at my bedroom door and the menorah in my window that still has white melted wax stuck to the brass all declare my Judaism.
But Christmastime is not easy. Besides the lights, carols and trees, the alone-ness is what makes it hard. I’ll be staying in New York, while my closest friends and my partner will be traveling home.
I’ve prepared myself for December 25, which in addition to Christmas is also Shabbat. I’ll probably listen to religion-neutral carols and perhaps just walk down 5th Avenue to look at the windows decorated for a holiday that’s no longer mine to enjoy. At least not in the way I’ve enjoyed it in the past.
I’m lucky to have 30 Christmases under my belt, spent with family and friends. It’s hard to predict what this day will be like, but I’m likely to long for my family, back in Ohio. I’ll wish I was in the kitchen with my mom, holding my nephews. I take comfort in knowing that other Jews-by-choice may be going through a similar range of emotions.
This was my first Hanukkah as a Jew-to-be, but my third with my (Jewish) partner. I’m overwhelmed with not only the number of holidays in the Jewish year but the excitement that we’ll be celebrating them all. I’m giving up a lot, but gaining so much more. For that, I am grateful.
Erika Davis blogs at blackgayandjewish.wordpress.com.