What Exactly Are We Celebrating?

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The holidays always make me feel like a hypocrite. Probably because I am one.

I don’t like to agree with sanctimonious religious people (they are the literal worst), but they are correct that I probably shouldn’t be celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah, seeing as I don’t believe in God. And here I am, celebrating both.

How does an atheist end up celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah? Honestly, it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but I didn’t walk into a bar and see a priest and a rabbi, if that’s what you’re wondering. The answer to all things holiday is – as with most people – family.

The simple answer to Christmas is that I was raised Catholic and grew up celebrating it and have continued to do so. Why not break up the bleakness of winter with an unhealthy dose of consumerism, am I right?

Luckily, my family is not religious, so there are no arguments over how I will not be attending mass, and my husband and I have managed to squash all hope of religious activity with my mother in law. (No long rambling prayers over an advent wreath for me, thank you very much.) She tried very hard, I’ll give her that.

As for Hanukkah, it came into my life when my sister converted. She fell in love with a Jewish man and found spiritual peace in the synagogue. It’s been around fifteen years since she made the switch and I’ve only just managed to learn how to spell it. (I’m lying. I still look it up every time. For some people it’s rhythm. For me it’s both.)

Every December since, we spend at least one night of Hanukkah with them and their faith and they join us for Christmas.

There are positives and negatives to this mish mash of holidays.

The obvious positive is the food. (Did you think I was going to say embracing multiple faiths and cultures in a loving circle of acceptance? Because… no. Food.) I will take any opportunity to enjoy a nice brisket, binge latkes and eat the appropriate amount of noodle kugel. (The key is to keep the portion small. A little bit? Delicious! A lot? Please no.) Give me blintzes, dumplings, turkey, mashed potatoes, rugelash and all the various Christmas cookies until I explode. Come one, come all!

The hard bit is navigating the various boring bits and inevitable awkwardness that comes with breaking various types of bread. For instance, my Jewish sister will only arrive on Christmas morning after Santa has come and gone. She is determined to keep her child from being wooed by the obvious temptation that is Santa and all his magic. She’s right too, because any child would be crazy not to go “Why the fuck aren’t we doing that?”

Nevermind that Santa has about as much to do with the Christian faith as he does with Judaism.

And before you give me the St. Nick garbage, first let me kindly invite you to jump off a cliff. I was raised Catholic, remember? I know the origin story. But Santa Claus is at best the alien cousin of St Nick, given that he is magic and rides in a sleigh with flying reindeer, when he’s not busy being the overlord over (again) magic elves.

There is also the yearly debate over whether I will attempt to find my nephew eight small gifts, in keeping with Hanukkah tradition, which makes spoiling him and buying his love while staying on budget difficult, or buy him 2 or 3 bigger presents, which feels like cheating. (It is cheating. And cheating wins. Cheating always wins. At least when he’s a teenager I can just split cash into eight envelopes and be done with it.)

When it comes to Christmas, my own Christmas spirit is mild at best and curmudgeon at worst. I don’t decorate. I don’t get a tree. I don’t love vacuuming up glitter for six full months after and wreaths and decorations make my house feel cluttered rather than magical. I enjoy other people’s lights but I’m not about to climb a ladder in sub-zero temperatures to put some up myself. My participation remains limited to buying gifts and baking treats.

Not to mention the addition of three birthdays in the month of December leaves me so frazzled by the end that I usually spend New Year’s Eve fast asleep by 8:30. And yet, there’s not a lot I would change. And what I would, I’m certainly not going to publish on the internet. (I’m sarcastic, not stupid.) This year more than ever, I’m looking forward to all the madness, if we’re able to manage it despite Covid. Because this grinch could use a little holiday magic. Or maybe just a long nap.

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