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Why Tradition Matters
Growing up in a Jewish household, I celebrated holidays no one else did, became an official “adult” at 13 and never had to dress up on Sundays. Naturally, as a child, I never took stock in any of these benefits, especially at Christmastime. What I knew was that we never had a tree, despite countless hours begging my dad to let me have a “Chanukah bush.” And even worse, the neighborhood seemed emptied of playmates because my mostly Christian friends were all visiting with relatives, Christmas shopping, partying and awaiting Santa’s arrival. I knew Santa wasn’t real and yet he never failed to put a crimp in my social life during winter break.
It wasn’t really all that bad, despite my teenage drama (from the time I was 10, according to my parents). We rarely took vacations during that time, but mom and dad tried their best to entertain me during my two-week social dry spell. Board games and crafts generally took precedence, along with playing in the snow (when there was any to be found).
Barbara Wasserman, CPA and member of Temple Beth Torah in Centreville, also grew up in a Jewish household and remembers her childhood holiday seasons differently. “I grew up near family so we usually got together,” she recalls, “Also, since the Jewish calendar is based on the moon and Chanukah is eight days, it often overlaps with Christmas.”
She did, however, recollect feeling a little left out when her friends went caroling. Hulya Aksu, Publisher of I Am Modern Magazine and Modern DC Business Magazine who is Muslim says she didn’t really feel left out of the Christmas traditions as a child.
“I came to this country at the age of 11,” she shares, “We have Santa and decorated trees in the New Year all over Istanbul, so it really wasn’t a change for me.” The changes seemed to take place later as each of us grew into different views regarding the Christmas season as adults and parents. It’s amazing how viewing the holidays through the eyes of your own children differ from the way you viewed them through your own childish eyes.
Even as an “outsider” I was always enamored with Christmas. Perhaps not the true Christian meaning, but with the magical feeling in the air, the noticeable generosity throughout the season and the semblance of togetherness that it seems to bring. I married a Christian man and we decided to bring all of our traditions and celebrations into our family. We enjoy New York delicatessen delights, lighting the menorah, reciting the Chanukah blessing as well as decorating our Christmas tree and awaiting Santa’s arrival.
For Hulya, explaining Christmas to her son was a little more difficult. “At the age of four, my son was told that he needed to celebrate baby Jesus’ birthday and if he didn’t he would go to hell,” she recalls, “That was fun to explain.” Christmas may not be celebrated, but New Years is a major event in the Aksu household. One of their most treasured traditions is getting new red underwear and slippers that must be donned before midnight on New Year’s Eve. (Hint: If you’re a guest at the Aksu home on New Year’s, you will not be exempt from this tradition!) The Wasserman’s are likewise very busy during the holidays; between visiting with friends of various faiths, celebrating Chanukah and sometimes traveling, they don’t feel left out of any traditions. While Christmas dinner is a night out at a Chinese or Indian restaurant, their own Jewish traditions are usually festive events shared with others.
“Two years ago during winter break,” tells Barbara, “we booked a cruise which overlapped with Chanukah. To our surprise the cruise acknowledged Chanukah and invited anyone celebrating it to celebrate each night with prayer and latkas.” Barbara remembers how many of them did not speak the same native tongue, yet they were all able to recite the Chanukah prayers in Hebrew together.
Whether Christmas is a tradition in your home or not, there’s definitely something to be said for the festiveness of the season, and no shortage of ways you can spend time with your family over winter break. Hulya, Barbara and I certainly agree on one thing: making your own holiday traditions will bring fond memories you and your children will have forever and sharing your customs with others, while allowing them to share theirs with you, will only serve to enhance your holidays.
JENNIFER HEYNS resides in Northern Virginia and is a columnist as well as the author of Bargaining for Our Lives, a healthcare memoir. For more about Jennifer visit JenniferHeyns.com and tweet to @JEHeyns or @Bargaining4.