Respecting and Reconciling Holiday Traditions

 When Santa Meets Jesus

I love the Christmas holiday. As a small child, I was enraptured with the magic of Christmas. In my child’s mind, I had no issues with melding the fantasy of Santa Claus with the religious significance of the birthday of Jesus. To me, Christmas was a time of celebration. I was under the belief that receiving Christmas gifts was somehow linked with Jesus’ giving spirit – as if He was sharing his birthday gifts with me. I never understood the kids who told me that their parents said Santa was nothing more than a make-believe entity – a marketing ploy to get people to spend their hard-earned money on useless gift-giving. Santa, after all, was a saint – a very generous saint who just loved to give children gifts.

Santa with Children

I am still surprised that I was able to blend the concept of Santa Claus with the religious significance of the birth of Jesus. This is indicative of the fact that I was born in the latter half of the 20th century in the United States of America. The melding-pot culture of this country blended these different ideologies into one cohesive celebration. I know some Christians are upset with this development but I have no problem with it. Regardless of a person’s religious beliefs, Christmas in America is a time of joyousness and charitable giving. It is a time of festive lights, happy music, and family gatherings. Yes, it can become a nightmare of consumerism but our economy is dictated by consumerism. Buying gifts for others, fueling our stalled economy, can create a positive effect.

The Origins of a December Christmas

Winter trees

Christmas still has a relevant religious significance for people who practice the Christian faith. Though history suggests that Jesus was probably born during the spring, when the sheep were in ewe, the Christian faith celebrates the birth of Jesus during the month of December. Many theologians speculate that the early church ‘placed’ this holiday around the time of the pagan ritual of Winter Solstice, celebrated during December in the Northern Hemisphere. Early humans feared the shortest day of the year; it was the darkest day of the year. These early traditions included rituals to ward off  evil and celebrations to renew hope of the gradual return of the warm, prosperous months. The early Christian church recognized the importance of the timing of the pagan rituals and traditions. By placing the celebration of the birth of Jesus in December, early Christians could find a communal sense of hope during the long, winter months. They would gather to face the darkest day of the year to acknowledge birth of their savior.

Christmas Past – 1971

Angels with infant Jesus

During the holiday season of 1971, I also learned that December had a significant celebration for people of another faith, Judaism. I had the opportunity to share my somewhat skewed Americanized version of Christmas with my Girl Scout Brownie troop. As the only goyim (gentile) in my Brownie troop, the two leaders asked my family if they could bring the troop over to our house as a field trip. My mother, grandparents, siblings, and I were new to the neighborhood. We had recently relocated to Niles, Illinois after the death of my father. My mother and grandparents had bought a two-story townhouse in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. There were rows and rows of brick townhouses, which seemed to stretch for miles. Needless to say, our home was the only home with a Christmas tree in the front window. Most of the other homes had blue lights and Hanukkah decorations.

For this ‘field trip’ to my family’s home, my fellow Brownies piled into the small living room, located on the upper level. Our Christmas tree was a fake tree, loaded with glass ornaments, garland, and tinsel that was carefully draped from the branches. The colored lights were large and round. The girls walked up to the tree. My grandma said we could touch the ornaments but we had to be careful because they were glass. One of the leaders asked me to explain what our ‘Manger’ signified. I was only 7 year’s old; I was at a loss for words. I directed the other girls over to the manger scene and somewhat fumbled through the cast of characters.

Well, this is the angel on top of the manger, bringing the good news. This guy is Joseph, Jesus’ dad. This is Mary, his mom. Here is baby Jesus. These are the shepherds and their animals. These are the Wise Men who brought him birthday gifts.

I then had to ask my grandma what the Wise Men brought to Jesus – I had forgotten. She replied, “Frankincense, gold, and myrrh.” 

I proceeded to show the girls our stockings and other decorations. My grandpa put on a Christmas record. We stood around the record player, listening to the music for a while. One of the adults suggested we go have our snacks. We went downstairs – in single file – where the kitchen and family room were located. My mom, grandma, and grandpa had made hot chocolate and cookies. Finally, one of the leaders asked the girls if they had any questions for me or my family. The restrained silence suddenly erupted with chatter – every girl wanted to ask me a question.

How do you let Santa know what gifts you want? You don’t have a chimney so how does Santa get in to deliver gifts? Have you ever gotten a lump of coal? How come Santa looks different in every store? Have you ever seen Santa in your house? How do you know Santa likes milk and cookies?

I tried my best to answer their questions. Sometimes, my mom, grandma, or grandpa would help with the answer. Finally, one girl asked, “Does Santa know Jesus?”  I just paused for a second and responded, “Well, of course he does! Christmas is Jesus’ birthday and Santa helps him share his gifts with everyone.”  The group of girls just stared at me. Finally, one of the leaders said, “Well, Santa just brings gifts to Christian children.”

An awkward silence fell over the group. I was completely confused. I then asked a few of the girls standing closest to me, “Doesn’t Santa bring you gifts?”  They all just shook their heads.

Coexisting: Christmas and Hanukkah 


This field trip began as a way for the Jewish girls to better understand the Christmas celebration. What happened next was a life-changing moment for me; this field trip transformed into an educational experience about the Jewish religion. This was my first exposure to people of a different faith. They excitedly told me about Hanukkah. For eight nights each year, Jewish people celebrate the Festival of Lights. I learned that Hanukkah celebrates the miracles that occurred more than 2,000 years ago when Judah and the Maccabees fought against religious persecution and rededicated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. They lit the menorah (a candelabrum) with only one day’s worth of oil that miraculously lasted for eight nights. Hence the reason why this yearly celebration includes the lighting of a candle each progressive night over eight evenings.

We only lived in Niles for two years, relocating once more in Illinois and then several times in Oregon. Still, this field trip broke down barriers for me and for my family. We were embraced by this community. I was invited to participate in Hanukkah lightings and attend Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs. I cannot tell you the exact number of neighborhood friends I had during this time but it was a large amount. I had roller skating friends, both male and female. I also had a large group of Barbie doll aficionados as friends.

Many of my friends’ parents were Holocaust survivors. I frequently saw the tattooed numbers on either their forearms or upper arms. My innocent questions about these numbers were patiently answered; the true horrors were never completely revealed to me since I was just a child. I did comprehend from their answers that the world war these survivors referred to was a time of terrible sadness and great suffering. When I would inquire, it seemed that every mother or father would kiss me on the head and say a blessing in Hebrew. The blessing would then be translated to me in English. They would ask that God bless me and hope that the world would never know such evilness again.

Merry Christmas and Happy… Hanukkah, Ashura, St. Nicholas Day, Bodhi Day, Virgin of Guadalupe, Santa Lucia Day, Los Posadas, Boxing Day, Kwanzaa, and any other holiday I may have missed

Christmas Ornament

As an adult, I try to acknowledge the celebrations of other religions. I may not practice their faith but, by extending my wishes, I am honoring them as fellow humans on this life journey. I know that most people must be aware of my holiday celebration – Christmas. You would have to live in a remote part of the world or under a rock to miss the commercialism and sensationalism of Christmas. For Christians, this marks the birth of our savior, Jesus Christ. For retailers, this offers the opportunity for a financial windfall. For all others, I hope that they can at least appreciate the joyfulness and concept of generosity of this holiday season. So, if you have the Bah, Humbugs – please try to shake them off and embrace all that is merry and bright!

NOTE: The holidays may be a time of great sadness for many people – people who cannot embrace all that is merry and bright. If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or other mental health issues during this holiday season, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a hotline at:  1-800-950-NAMI (6264).