“Identities” is a new Groundswell series highlighting the intersection between who a person is, and the consumer choices they make. Each person’s unique identity plays a role in how they see and access the world, and these stories offer one individual’s perspective.
Growing up Jewish in America, it always seemed like the holiday season meant something a little different to me than it did to the rest of the country.
The normal holiday trope never quite applied to my family. While other kids had a gift bonanzas under the tree, our gifts were rationed—one for each night. While the rest of America scrambled to buy gifts, we were usually through with Hanukkah. When other families gathered at home for extravagant meals on Christmas Eve, we were often out for Chinese food and a movie.
In some sense, I felt a little left out. The holiday stories of Hollywood were never mine, the songs on the radio weren’t played for me. Store employees’ Christmas wishes to me always went unrealized.
Religiously, Hanukkah is of little significance. All major Jewish holidays are outlined in the Old Testament, while the story of Hanukkah is relayed in secondary texts. But when I was young, my family treated Hanukkah as a major day. Back then, my parents, likely eager to cure their childrens’ feelings of otherness, celebrated Hanukkah the American way—essentially as a Christmas for Jews.
But as my sisters and I all breached adulthood, my family essentially ceased to participate in this consumer Hanukkah, and I haven’t felt obligated to pick out gifts for my parents and sisters. Instead, the winter break merely offered a life pause that allowed all six us of to spend time as a family—now, my family treats Hanukkah as the minor holiday that it is by lighting a few candles and eating some potato pancakes and jelly-filled doughnuts.
Then, while living in the Christmas-free zone of Tel Aviv, Israel for two winters I realized something unexpected—I missed Christmas. I longed for the lights, the trees, the speciality drinks and most of all, the holiday cheer. Though I had never actively celebrated Christmas, I had passively accepted it as a uplifting and beautiful aspect of my December.
And so, it dawned upon me that though Christmas was never my holiday, I still had my own share of ownership over the Christmas season. Though I will never celebrate a religious Christmas, I thoroughly enjoy experiencing an American one.
This winter, back in the U.S., I feel lucky to get the best of both worlds—to exist in this cheerful, glowing holiday atmosphere while relishing the good fortune of never feeling obligated to purchase gifts, trees or lights.
Today, I no longer seek complete inclusion when it comes to the winter holidays. Instead, I appreciate the holiday season for what it can be for all: a beautiful way to keep spirits up in the cold and dark of winter.
No matter which winter holiday you observe, appreciation for the traditions and customs of others may not only make you a more open-minded human being, but also a more spiritually balanced one. While I, as a non-celebrator, enjoy the surrounding Christmas festivities, I feel inspired when I see celebrators of Christmas putting less emphasis on material goods and instead capitalizing on valuable time with friends and family. Because while presents are great, they don’t have to be the highlight of the holiday season.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a wonderful winter holiday season to all!
Molly Cornfield is a freelance writer, UCLA environmental science graduate, and aspiring environmental health advocate living in DC. In the past eight years, she’s lived in five different cities in three states and on two continents. Her love for chocolate is second to none.