In Vermont, winter isn’t coming. It’s already here. We’ve already had two snow days that involved my heart sinking when the automated text arrived before 7 a.m. and my husband and I scrambling to rearrange our days. The snow tires are already on the car and my favorite cross-country ski area is open, something I am usually a little more excited for. This year, the early Winter feels a little harder. It’s harder to get outside with a toddler who refuses to wear her coat. It’s harder to adjust to the time-change, especially as the darkness falls before 4 p.m. Additionally, it’s also feeling a little more challenging to approach the Christmas season, which really is what most folks mean when they speak of ‘holidays.’
Vermont is not known for its diversity. However, it’s getting better. There have been some exciting developments in that area recently. However, there is one aspect of Vermont winter culture that is as predictable as the annual LL Bean coat sale: Christmas celebrations. Shortly after Thanksgiving, a huge Christmas tree is placed at the top of a pedestrian walkway in the city I live in. The Nutcracker always comes to the performing arts center. All the schools and most businesses shut down between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It’s an eerily quiet week that often can leave me feeling as though I am left out of some party. And honestly, I sort of am.
Being Jewish at Christmas in Vermont is confusing. As a native Vemonter, I grew up with this confusion and feeling of otherness and often felt as though Hanukkah was a consolation prize. I remember being asked by friends and classmates about what I got from Santa and feeling ashamed by telling them that Santa didn’t come to my house and that I played dreidel instead. I remember eating dry matzah during Passover in the cafeteria and looking longingly at the sandwiches of my friends. It felt a little like I had been in trouble and was being punished somehow.
My parents were proud of their Jewish heritage, and my mom especially was a pillar in her small Jewish community in Montpelier, VT. I didn’t feel any shame around being Jewish at home. That grew from the ignorant culture around me that didn’t understand that not all children wanted to be in the Christmas Pageant in elementary school. Later, while attending a youth leadership weekend in High School I remember having to attend a mandatory Sunday Catholic Service. Another time I visited Washington, DC with a group of students from around the country and was asked by a girl from Alabama if Jewish people really grew horns. She hadn’t met any other Jewish person and I cringed from the responsibility of being the first one she met. As if I could possibly represent the entirety of Jewish experiences.
And even later I was stunned and overwhelmed by the Jewish culture at Tufts during college. Having been a minority, I loved meeting the many other Jewish students. After college, I lived in Brookline, MA while I attended an MFA program. I remember walking around Coolidge Corner on Christmas day and walking into the open grocery and book stores. It was just another day in Brookline. The whole world hadn’t stopped. It was exhilarating. I hadn’t ever experienced that before. And then, much later as I worked for a small college in Vermont, I had to use my vacation days to honor Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. As we all know, it is certainly not a vacation. The college was closed on Christmas and Easter.
Today, I am grappling with the questions of how to raise a Jewish daughter in an Interfaith home in a challenging time. She is too young to ask me why her friends celebrate Christmas and we don’t and she is too young to understand the particular pains of learning about the Holocaust as one of the few Jewish students in her class. I know all of this is to come and I wish I could say that I am ready with answers.
The Internet is filled with well-meaning parenting advice on this topic and I am sure many astute Rabbis would be happy to discuss this at length with me, but this is a challenge that I hope to handle with grace and curiosity, and will do so in a private way, in a way that feels most appropriate to my family, in a way that might not be featured in the parenting blogs. One such blog, featured on InterfaithFamily.com, says that it’s important to “let the child guide the conversation and not let our own preconceived notions rule the discussion.” Another article in the Chicago Tribune suggests that it is important for parents to have discussions about religion “ideally before you get married.”
That is good advice, but I can barely remember what my married life pre-children looked like, let alone what my discussions were on religion. I also think any discussions about parenting before actually being a parent is a waste of time. Much like any other aspect of parenting, I anticipate that I will do my best to rise to the occasion to answer her questions, even if they don’t have an answer, as they arise. I hope that I have the patience and bravery to discover what those answers may be.
I also hope that all of my daughter’s future school teachers will understand when I ask that they include Hanukkah and Kwanzaa in their classroom celebrations. I hope that my daughter doesn’t have to endure being asked about horns or feeling embarrassed for her curly hair. I hope that she feels safe in our increasingly terror-filled world and I hope that she has the courage to honor the Jewish traditions in however she feels called to do so.
I’ve already received Christmas-themed emails from clothing companies and have seen posters for Santa’s visits. I am starting to feel a growing anxiety about living with the challenges of not celebrating Christmas this season, but I remind myself that this is a time to cultivate peace within and to light the Hanukkah menorah with pride this year, with the gentle eyes of my daughter watching. I hope that in the years to come that my daughter will feel the light of Hanukkah in the darkness of Winter and that in the midst of the Christmas frenzy that she too may realize that some questions might not have answers that can be found on blogs.