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21 December 2022

After two years of false starts, I’m working out how to make Christmas my own

Our Chanukah traditions are being passed on to the next generation. But I’m happy to add eggnog, a tree and baubles for the cat to fight with.

By Rachel Cunliffe

My favourite Christmas song, guaranteed to make me tear up with emotion at the opening chords, is White Wine in the Sun by Tim Minchin. “I really like Christmas,” he sings. “It’s sentimental I know, but I just really like it.” It isn’t really a Christmas song at all. Though he sings about how much he’s looking forward to it, Minchin makes it clear that it’s not the religious aspects he likes. He has no interest in celebrating the birth of Jesus, nor in the consumerism surrounding the festival. It’s being home with his family and getting to introduce his baby daughter to the traditions he hopes will be with her for her whole life.

I am gradually, after two false starts, learning to lean into Christmas. For three decades 25 December was defined by what we didn’t do. Jews can be funny about Christmas; my parents never resented it, but it was always made clear that this was a festival for other people. My sister and I would help to decorate our aunt’s Christmas tree while my mother rebuffed our pleas for one of our own. One year my sister draped a pot plant with tinsel and paper chains and put presents underneath it in an act of childhood rebellion. Our parents ignored it. A decade later I got into a furious row with my university housemate about whether or not to have a tree in our student house. “It’s Christmas,” she argued, bemused. “Not in my home,” I insisted. We compromised with tinsel on the banister. She was going back to her parents for Christmas Day anyway. What did it matter?

There was no argument over the Christmas tree currently set up in the corner of my sitting room. It appeared two years ago, courtesy of the man I would soon be marrying. This was his home now and, more importantly, the home of his two small children, at least some of the time. We were still working out how to make our blended family work: two households, two Christmases, a jumble of different faiths and traditions and driving back and forth. To not have a tree would be unthinkable, especially as it was looking increasingly likely that Christmas in its usual form would be cancelled that year, with Covid cases rising and another lockdown looming. The tree was an act of defiance. In the end we weren’t able to visit his parents as planned and my first introduction to a proper English Yuletide was delayed another year. He cooked a full Christmas dinner anyway, just for the two of us. We went for a walk on Hampstead Heath in the crisp December sunshine, then came back and ate until we couldn’t move. I discovered how much I like eggnog. The cat fought with the baubles on the tree.

I am fiercely defensive over the idea that my sister and I missed out on anything. Other people had Christmas, we had Chanukah – and we knew how to do it in style. My earliest memories are of crowding around a table festooned with blazing menorot: a grandmother I never met had apparently decided decades ago that everyone should be able to have their own if they wanted, making our candle lighting something of a fire hazard each year. The guest list for the Chanukah tea, once held at my great aunt and uncle’s house but hosted by my parents for the last fifteen or so years, regularly exceeds forty people once all the family and their spouses and their children are squeezed in. There isn’t room for everyone to sit down at once so we eat in shifts, passing around bowls of steaming potato latkes straight from the kitchen where my father, aunt, cousins and sister have been frying all day. The whole house smells of cooking oil and candle wax. The frenzy of present opening has been passed on to my cousins’ children, who bask in reams of wrapping paper under the stairs, just as I once did.

My mother digs out an ancient cassette tape of Chanukah songs and we sing along, stamping our feet and clapping. I don’t remember ever learning the Hebrew words, I just absorbed them. Maoz Tzur (meaning “rock of my salvation”) is the one sung straight after the candles are lit. One year my father invented a second verse in English: “We don’t know the second verse – we never have and we never will. So we only sing the first, we sing it loud and we sing it still!” That was twenty years ago. Today, every one of my relatives knows it and sings along.

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So too, now, do my stepdaughters. Chanukah might not be their festival by blood, but it is part of our family and so are they. They sing songs about making latkes and spin dreidels with my little cousins under the feet of adults balancing plates of salt beef and apple sauce. They understand about lighting an extra candle each night, and why. They know the story of Judah Maccabee and the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days, which is why there are eight nights of Chanukah. Do they believe it? Did I ever believe it? It doesn’t matter. They already get two Christmases. Why shouldn’t they have Chanukah too?

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And why shouldn’t I have Christmas? Last year we made it to my husband’s parents – just. Omicron was raging so we isolated beforehand, turning down invitations for parties and bringing Covid tests with us, just in case. Boxing Day was spent on an emergency dash to a PCR testing centre in a car park in Gloucester. This year should hopefully be smoother. We’ll be driving up to see them again, girls in tow with a car full of presents and wine. I have been looking forward to my mother-in-law’s bread sauce for months. But we’ve already started celebrating – making decorations with the children, going to the South Bank Christmas market for mulled cider. On Monday we attended the carol service at St Bride’s Church on Fleet Street, hosted by the Journalists’ Charity, and I listened to my husband, an erstwhile choral scholar, belt out Good King Wenceslas and Come All Ye Faithful. Then we went home and lit the Chanukah candles.

The year we got the tree my old university housemate sent me a present: a bauble, hand-made of glass, with a menorah painted on in gold glitter. Her way of helping me make Christmas my own. Chanukah moves according the lunar calendar; this year the last night is Christmas Day. We still have presents to wrap. One evening this week I will light the candles and sing Maoz Tzur. My husband has learnt the improvised second verse and will sing too. Then he’ll make me latkes (his own controversial recipe, using sweet potato) and I’ll get out the wrapping paper and put on White Wine in the Sun. Maybe I do like Christmas after all. It’s sentimental I know, but I just really like it.

[See also: The psychology of why we celebrate Christmas]

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