It’s the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, and I have spent a chunk of time wrapping presents, which I’ve been collecting for months, in red paper with green polka dots. I also went next door to give my neighbors’ puppy, Penny, the candy cane squeaky toy I scooped up for her in early November. (Penny obliged me by racing around joyfully with the toy in her mouth—running, leaping, squeaking.) Christmas time is here; Chanukah time is here; and I love it all.
I was not raised with Christmas in my Jewish home. However, I was raised with Christmas all around me. My small town was predominantly Protestant, and it wasn’t easy to grow up there feeling left out of the holiday’s festivities. I asked for a Christmas tree and was denied. I knew a tree wasn’t really mine to have, but I wanted one anyway.
Somewhere along the way in my early adulthood, I began to realize that though I don’t technically observe Christmas, I can participate in it in ways that are true to my beliefs. I don’t have a tree, but nothing says I can’t gather with friends to drink eggnog and help decorate theirs. On a more spiritual level, “Christmas giving” and the spirit of tzedakah feel very similar to me. In fact, my favorite Christmases as a child were when my family went to volunteer at a soup kitchen on Christmas day.
And so, when my friend Lauren (also Jewish) suggested one year that a group of us participate in the “Letters to Santa” program organized by the postal service, I was all over it. I selected a letter (a girl named Anna hoped for a new purse and some cute mittens), purchased the gifts, and headed to Lauren’s for the wrapping party.
Then I started writing a note to Anna, from “Santa” of course—and that’s when my own background really kicked in.
My note told Anna I hoped she was doing her best with all her homework. She had mentioned younger siblings in her letter, so I told her that she should help with them when she could, to make things easier for her parents. I told her to get enough sleep, eat a healthy breakfast, refrain from too much TV, read good books, get fresh air, and have a Merry Christmas.
Except for that last part, Santa sounded exactly like my Jewish grandparents.
My friends saw that I’d found a groove and asked me to write notes to go with their gifts, too. Santa as I imagined him reminded children to clear their dinner dishes, help with the laundry, steer away from bickering with their brothers, recycle paper and bottles, let go of grudges, and of course, always, work hard in school.
The night was filled with laughter, wrapping paper, Christmas giving, tzedakah, some wine, and an overall spirit of camaraderie and generosity. And so it is, every year: I find ways to participate in Christmas that reflect the religion and the values with which I was raised and that I still embrace. “Do not withhold good where it is due, if it be in your power to bestow it” (Mishle 3:27)—I will celebrate and I will give, sometimes from “Santa,” always from my heart.
Brooklyn-based journalist and essayist Pamela Grossman has written for outlets such as the “Village Voice,” “Ms.,” and Salon.com. @Brooklynpam.