When did I reach my breaking point? I was sitting in the bleachers of a high school gym, waiting for my 9-year-old daughter’s dance recital to begin. It was the Saturday before Thanksgiving. My husband and I had arrived early, as soon as the doors opened, to secure our seats. And then it started, the irritating music pulsing over the loudspeakers.
This wasn’t just any music. These were Christmas songs by the likes of Boyz II Men, El DeBarge and other artists of yesteryear.
Perhaps I was provoked by the uncomfortable bleachers, but I turned to my husband and said sharply: “I wish they would turn off this crap.”
This was a full five days before Thanksgiving. It wasn’t even the holiday season, not officially. But that was the moment I finally — after 40-plus years of living as a Jew in a Christian world — became annoyed with the constant loop of Christmas songs.
I’m not sure why it hit me then. I’ve spent dozens of holiday seasons politely smiling at the Salvation Army bell ringers and the random strangers who wish me “merry Christmas.” They have no idea, nor any care, that I don’t celebrate the holiday.
I grew up in a Jewish family in Minneapolis in the 1970s and ’80s. I was among a handful of Jewish kids at my school. I knew being Jewish was special. Well, maybe not special, exactly, but it was certainly “different,” as Minnesotans say.
The Jewish community in the Twin Cities was smaller back then. It helped to feel a sense of belonging with the larger Minneapolis Jewish community. After all, we belonged to one of the bigger synagogues in town, Adath Jeshurun, along with hundreds of other Jewish families. And I went to the Talmud Torah of Minneapolis for Hebrew school with many other Jewish children.
And when the holidays rolled around, we didn’t celebrate Christmas. But, boy, we celebrated Hanukkah!
Every year, my mom hauled from the basement our 4-foot Star of David, built by my grandfather when I was a toddler. It was wrapped in white crepe paper and adorned with little blue lights. And it was under this star that we placed our gifts for one another. To me, it seemed far superior to any Christmas tree. Plus, it was situated near our beautiful menorah, which we lighted each of the eight nights of Hanukkah.
We celebrated many of the other Jewish holidays, too — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover. And we had Shabbat dinner at my grandmother’s Edina apartment every Friday night. We weren’t a particularly religious family. Judaism was more about tradition for us.
It wasn’t until I left Minneapolis and headed east for college that I realized how small our Jewish community really was. I went to school in Washington, D.C., with a large contingency of Jewish kids. It felt a bit foreign at first, but I came to find it quite comforting. For once, I didn’t feel like being Jewish was in the minority.
When I returned to Minneapolis in the late ’90s (let’s face it, most Minnesotans eventually come back) I brought with me my Jewish boyfriend, who later became my Jewish husband.
Sure, Minneapolis had grown more diverse while I was away, but it was still an adjustment living here again. The kinship I felt with all those other East Coast Jews was suddenly lost.
But my husband and I continued living Jewish lives, especially with the arrival of our son and daughter. When they reached school age, we joined a synagogue and enrolled them in Jewish education. Sometimes we have Shabbat dinner, but we absolutely observe Hanukkah every year. Our traditions include playing dreidel, lighting the menorah and, yes, using my grandfather’s Star of David. When someone wishes us a merry Christmas, we cheerily respond with “happy holidays!”
My son is a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jewish boy who has been singing in a local boys choir for the past five years. The irony of him singing about the birth of Jesus Christ and the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” isn’t lost on me. Our family spends many December evenings sitting in churches, listening to these singing boys (all donning Santa hats, of course).
I fully understand that Jews are a minority in the U.S., even more so in Minnesota. And I get that Christmas reigns supreme among the holidays. Other occasions are a mere afterthought.
But the people who celebrate these other holidays? We shouldn’t be an afterthought. Maybe that’s why I got so frustrated as I sat in those uncomfortable bleachers.
Wendy Jacobson is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis.