The question arose in my household the other day "How can I decorate my house for the holidays without making my spouse feel like a lonely Jew?" You see, left to my own devices the other night, our house turned into a festive wonderland covered in twinkle lights and Martha Stewart tissue paper pom poms in Christmas alternative colors (teal, blue, green, and white) or what seemed to my spouse like a tacky Christmas sweater had exploded all over our living room, dining room, and kitchen. It was a bit much and offended his sensibilities of style, taste and Jewish heritage. At the time, I thought he was being a little Scrooge-ish, but I've been meditating on the incident ever since.
I've set my mind to ponder what it might feel like to be a non-Christian at this time of year. What does it feel like to go grocery shopping, watch TV, turn on the radio, or commute home from work at 5:00?
Christmas is everywhere! Every sales clerk ends a transaction, "Merry Christmas!" Every store is decorated with holiday displays - even the hardware store. The used salesman reminds you of "the reason for the season" with an evangelical message. The radio blasts Nat King Cole's Christmas Song. And house after house is covered in twinkle lights, evergreens, and red bows. It must get a bit tiresome if you don't feel included in the revelry.
Despite his own family traditions of waking up to a surprise from Santa and getting together with family on Christmas day, my spouse has an inherent since that Christmas is not his holiday. It doesn't belong to him. Even with his interfaith stocking hung on my parents mantle and our amalgamation of decorations at our house, sometimes, he still feels like this:
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The point was further driven home when his aunt came over the other night while I was unpacking my sixth and final box of decorations and she reveled in the plethora of holiday paraphernalia and the fact that each item had a story and sentimental value. From the Christmas tree china my aunt has been giving me piece by piece since I was born to ornaments collected on summer vacations to miniature tinsel trees I got on a killer sale from Iron Gate each item represents precious memories that enhance my Christmas spirit every time I look at them. She can't remember if she has ever decorated a tree before. Per her request, next year, she is coming over when I open up the first box and we're trimming the tree together. I can't wait to share that tradition with her!
While I don't know what it feels like to be left out of Christmas, there is a time of year when I do tend to be in the outsider role. The prayers and message of Yom Kippor always make me a little left out because it is the time of year when Jews remember why it is so important to be Jews and how difficult that has been through the ages. I can't help but feel I've contributed to the difficulty. It's not intentional, and the rhetoric has become more inclusive every year. But it simply isn't my holiday. I appreciate its beauty and its message of repentance, forgiveness and hope for the future, and the celebration of tradition, culture, and relationship with God, but I feel outside of it.
Thankfully, I've had this experience. These are the moments in life that make me more empathetic.
Luckily, this season, our rabbi wrote this article about sharing Hanukkah with non-Jews. It's about the universal appeal of light in the darkest time of year. His words help me see Hanukkah in a new light (pun intended). And it got me thinking, if the message of Hanukkah can be shared, can the message Christmas, too? And was is the take home message of Christmas?
For me, Christmas is the birth of hope in the world. It is a reminder I need every year, especially when winter puts its chilled, gray tinge on everything. The hope is what I saw in Janet and Innocent, Frederick and Matthias in Rwanda. People who overcame hate and learned to love and be loved again. Christmas hope means humans can overcome the worst of ourselves and become the best of ourselves. We, as humans divinely made, can be at war with one another and eventually find peace. We can go from being enemies to reconciled neighbors. This is the hope of the baby Jesus I wish to share with my spouse and his family.
So, can the lights and songs, the ridiculous sweaters and hats, the well wishing and egg nog remind us all that we can be good neighbors to each other? Can it help us all remember that hope exists or does it take something more?
I've toned back the decorations now not because my Christmas spirit is diminished by my husband's feelings of being left out, but because the Festivals of Light shine brightest through humility. He reminded me of that.
Imagine the single burning lamp in the midst of a ruined temple - one bright, beautiful point of light that brought with it the relief of being free. Imagine the sweet scent of a little baby cooing softly in his mother's arms surrounded by weary travelers and barnyard odors who brought with him the newness of life and new dreams for a better future. These images bring us hope because we see the beauty amidst the dirt and grime and sadness of everyday life. Too much tinsel blinds us to the juxtaposition. I've pared down so the lights can bring us both hope through the mundane.
We still have some work to do figuring out how we can include each other in our winter traditions. I've learned the blessing sung when lighting the Menorah candles and my husband has learned how to hang twinkle lights on our roof. It may be time for us to forge a new tradition that binds the old ones together so neither of us feels left out and so the lights of the season fill us with hope in one another.