I celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas—here’s what it’s taught me

My friends have referred to me as a pizzabagel for as long as I can remember. I personally prefer the term “cashew” because I consider it to be more unique. But then again pizzabagels are delicious. The reason for doing so is that I grew up with one Jewish parent and one Catholic parent, so for the entirety of my life, December meant Chrismukkah. As much as I wish I could say that meant eight gifts for Hanukkah and a pile more for Christmas (which is what I MIGHT have let the kids in middle school believe) that was not the case. Every year, on the first night of Hanukkah, my family would have a special dinner and give each other a gift. We’d light the menorah for the following seven nights and then on Christmas we’d have a tree and exchange a few more presents. I know we didn’t follow exact religious instructions for celebrating, but it was our family tradition and that’s what mattered.

It wasn’t until college that I ever even considered for a moment that what we did could be frowned upon by other people. But freshman year when I was describing what the holidays were like at my house, I was met with derision by several people who lived on my dorm floor.

“You can’t be two religions,” one guy sneered at me. “They’re completely in opposition to each other. How do you not know that, are you stupid?”

“I didn’t say I was two religions,” I protested. “I said that we celebrate holidays for two religions in my house. In other parts of the year too, not just December. Some for my dad, some for my mom.” But no matter how hard I tried to explain this, they were set on telling me that I didn’t know anything about religious faith. I left the dorm lounge that day, angry, upset and confused. Why was this all of a sudden an issue?

I called my mom to vent about my frustration. “Welcome to life!” She congratulated me. “People aren’t always going to understand what you do or how you do it. This doesn’t excuse their rude obnoxious behavior, but it’s rooted in ignorance. What we do in this house is respect two separate upbringings. Mine and your father’s. When you are out of college and out on your own, you’ll also do what you choose.”

“Of course I will always celebrate all the holidays!” I agreed.

“No that’s not what I meant. I mean that you’re growing up and you can decide what you want to believe in for yourself. Regardless of what we do. And we’ll respect it.”

I was completely blown away that day. My mother and I had never conversed like this and I had never even given a thought to choosing a religion to follow. I just assumed I would continue to do what my parents had done before me. But they hadn’t followed in their own parents’ footsteps. My maternal grandparents were Jewish and my paternal grandparents were Roman Catholic, and everyone had gotten along. It never occurred to me that it could be anything otherwise. (Part of me believes that since both sides always had an affinity to constantly feed people, how could they do anything but bond?)

But it was an important lesson to learn, one of many experiences in college that took me out of the safe bubble where I grew up in suburban New Jersey. A place where spats between friends or acquaintances never had anything to do with religion or politics. Revealing my Chrismukkah excitement away at college taught me that people can be cruel about what they personally don’t relate to or understand. And while that was angering and upsetting to me at first, it taught me how I never want to be towards others. Judgmental of their values and experiences. In spite of differences, there’s no reason why those two on my dorm floor couldn’t have engaged in a more positive exchange of ideas and opinions. Perhaps we all could have learned something from each other.

These days I tend to mainly stick to celebrating Christmas in my house, but I’ve attended parties for friends who celebrate Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, and I always remember that if something seems strange or different to me, the best thing to do is ask about it. But most importantly respect it.

[Image via The CW]

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