Growing up, I loved celebrating Christmas at my grandparents’ house in rural Tennessee. A row of nutcrackers stood at attention along the mantle of the fireplace, and felt mice ran up the grandfather clock in the living room. My grandmother waited to decorate the tree until my parents and I got in from Ohio, and together we’d nestle her hand-sewn partridge and elf ornaments into its branches, then head to the kitchen to make fudge and Santa-shaped sugar cookies.
It all sounds straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. But there was something offbeat about our all-American celebrations: I was raised Jewish, just like my mother’s side of the family.
My parents were always clear about where the lines were drawn. Chanukah happened at home, while Christmas was more of a nice place to visit. Yet even after my grandparents have passed away, I’ve found myself unable to give up Christmas.
In this, I’m in good company. Roughly a third of Jewish people in the United States put Christmas trees in their homes during the holiday season, according to an October 2013 report from the Pew Research Center. And it’s even more common for interfaith Jewish-Christian families like mine to celebrate Christmas, according to a 2013 survey by the nonprofit organization Interfaith Family. Eighty-six percent of intermarried respondents raising Jewish children said they planned to partake in Yuletide cheer.
What are we to make of Jewish people who join in the Christmas revelry? Ultra-conservatives who routinely get in a huff about a “war on Christmas” might argue that this is all part of a larger conspiracy against the holiday: instead of banning it outright, non-believers are watering it down. Meanwhile, more traditional Jews may also frown upon the idea that some young members of the tribe spend Christmas Eve listening for the clatter of reindeer hooves on the roof.
But for many Jewish people living in the US, Christmas is such an all-encompassing celebration that it makes sense to dive into the holiday merriment—with no disrespect intended to the Christian faithful.
“I think there are two very different holidays: the religious celebration of Christ, and the cultural celebration of Christmas,” Martina Shabram, a Jewish teacher and writer living in Seattle who married into a Christmas-celebrating family, tells Quartz. “The former is really not anything I have an interest or business being part of as a non-Christian, actively-Jewish human. But the latter … that’s bigger than Christianity, in its own way.”
In fact, the tradition of Jewish-Americans partaking in Christmas cheer goes way back. German Jews in the US during the first half of the 20th century “would put up Christmas trees and stockings so they could assimilate and their children could be American,” Rabbi Ari Moffic, director of the Chicago division of Interfaith Family, tells Quartz. Families substituted miniature trains for crèches under the tree.
These days, most Jewish families in the US don’t have to worry about assimilating. “For most liberal American Jews, we are deeply part of the fabric of American life and culture,” Moffic says. Instead, Jewish people who celebrate Christmas do it not “to come closer to Christianity per say, but as a way of marking warm, sweet, joyful childhood memories.”
Those joyful childhood memories can prove hard to shake as an adult. In contemporary American culture, kids basically get injected with a dose of Christmas spirit at birth—regardless of their faith. In addition to my family’s annual Tennessee festivities at my grandparents’ house, I strung together construction-paper garlands in elementary school, soaked up endless Christmas television specials and played Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer in our fourth-grade Christmas pageant. So it’s no surprise that as a grown woman, I don’t hesitate to go a-wassailing with friends or round up my Jewish family to exchange presents over Christmas brunch.
Many of the Jewish friends I spoke with report feeling similarly swept up by Christmas festivities—and finding the lure of the Christmas tree particularly irresistible.
Linda Mayer, a Jewish retired teacher who grew up on an Irish-Catholic block in Washington Heights, remembers celebrating Christmas at the home of her Christian grandmother when she was a young child. At three years old, she grew too sick to go to her grandmother’s house for the holiday.
“My father ran out and got a couple branches, and we had Christmas dinner just for me,” Mayer tells Quartz.
After that, the habit of holding Christmas at home stuck—so much so that the seasonal presence of a twinkly fir tree became part of her unofficial marriage contract. Her husband Ron was at first staunchly against permitting a Christmas tree admission into their Jewish apartment. But another friend intervened, promising to bake him a fruitcake in exchange for a little holiday lenience.
Tales of resistant Jewish family members eventually won over by Christmas are not uncommon. Phoebe Bronstein, a postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, tells Quartz that her father initially put up a fight about welcoming a Christmas tree into their Bay Area home.
“The first time we got a tree, my mom and I went out on Christmas Eve, and we found basically an abandoned one,” Bronstein recalls. Her father “was resistant.” But as the years went by, Bronstein says, “my mom and I stopped caring, and my dad was like, ‘We must have a tree—this is part of the holiday thing.’”
These days, Bronstein continues to celebrate Christmas with her parents and husband, complete with handmade stockings and the occasional Gregorian chant cued up by her father. But in honor of her Jewish upbringing, the tree is bedecked with ornaments in the shape of the Star of David and menorahs.
Bronstein says that for her, Christmas is less about religion than it is about family.
“Christian values are about generosity and love,” Bronstein says, “so if that’s the case, the more the merrier.”
But some Jewish people confess to mixed feelings about stepping inside the Christmas bubble.
“I will admit to feeling a little bit of loss,” says Shabram. While she spent most of her adult life celebrating Chanukah, her husband’s family goes all-out for Christmas—right down to a roast goose straight out of Charles Dickens.
“Having embraced my new family’s traditions doesn’t mean losing mine,” Shabram continues. “But part of my identity as a Jew did involve a sense of identifying against Christmas—part of being a Jew was not being involved in that huge cultural production. Now that I am? It’s a little odd.”
Such feelings are understandable: Rabbi Moffic notes that some Jewish families take active pride in standing apart from the annual onslaught of red-and-green revelry and “not doing Christmas.” But she’s sympathetic to Jews who do opt into the holiday—and encourages those who don’t understand the impulse to reserve judgment.
More traditional Jewish people may “fear that we will lose something—that Judaism will suffer,” Moffic says. Meanwhile, devout Christians could feel that “we are taking away from the religious nature of Christmas by focusing on what are seen as purely materialistic and thus negative, shallow or empty things.”
But rather than indulge such fears, Moffic encourages people to “spend this season giving and sharing, cultivating and spreading joy, finding commonalities, exploring narratives, and feeling peace and love.”
For my part, swigging eggnog while swapping presents to the tune of Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite come December 25th has never been tough to reconcile with my Jewish identity. To me, Christmas is like a party thrown by the world’s most gregarious host: alluring, comfortable with a little rule-breaking, and big enough to welcome in everyone who comes knocking.