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The unexpected freedom of a holiday that is no longer mine: on being a Jewish mother at Christmas

Every family celebrates Christmas in their own way. This week we’re hearing from families around New Zealand explaining what they celebrate and why they do. Here Eliza Jane talks about letting go of Christmas after converting to Judaism.

Christmas was not a religious holiday in our family. More than anything, it marked the start of the summer break. Christmas day was a giant bowl of cherries on the dining table. Christmas day was having the doors open all day to the garden, running in and out, the joyous thought of two weeks holiday with mum and dad coming up.

Germany, Berlin, giant Hanukkah menorah near Brandenburg Gate at night

A giant Christmas tree and Hanukkah menorah near the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Photo: Getty Images

After my husband and I were engaged, I started learning about Judaism, with a view to deciding whether to convert before we married. With a background in philosophy, the questions in my mind were mainly the sort that rabbis like to be asked. But for other people, the questions were different.

– But no bacon!

(um, I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 13, so…)

– But what about Christmas?!

The first year after we married, we had a midwinter celebration, a magnificent dinner party in our little flat. I made FOUR DIFFERENT KINDS OF DESSERT. My birthday is in mid June and my husband’s is in early July – it was a joint birthday party. Let’s do this every year, we thought (we haven’t). Let’s do a big winter party every year and make lots of delicious food. It’s nice to have a party in winter.

And it’s nice to have a party in summer.

Celebration makes life splendid. Marking the seasons, marking time, rituals that connect us with other people – we need more of it. For me it was one of the particularly appealing features of being adopted into the Jewish tradition. The patterns of the year, the pauses for meaning. I can see the mini holiday of Shabbat every week becoming more and more central for us now that the hectic year of new baby is starting to even out.

Celebration is why people love Christmas, even when they’re not Christian.

On Wednesday we went to Capital E. It had a winter wonderland theme with Christmas trees and gingerbread houses and fake snow and it was all quite twee but also cool. The little dude said rather adorably “Yay! It’s Tismis at Capital E!” He’s been spotting Tismis Twees all around town, and he thinks they’re wonderful.

We saw a Santa at a department store and the little dude recognised him from the Christmas specials of Ben and Holly, Peppa Pig, and Spot. He said “That man is dressed up yike Sandta Taus!!! Mummy I scared of dat man!” Fair enough on both counts kiddo!

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Is it awkward though, for Christians, to have their holy day festooned with tinsel? Probably harder to explain the random winter solstice stuff (in a New Zealand summer!) to Christian kids than to Jewish kids.

Explaining the religious side of Christmas from a progressive Jewish perspective is not that hard – at least, easier than if you’re explaining it from a non-religious perspective! It starts, once upon a time there was a very very wise Rabbi…

I’ve found since having the little dude that there’s a lovely freedom being a visitor to Christmas. It’s not our holiday, so we don’t have to explain it, we don’t have to buy into it. We don’t have to analyse the consumerism or the implausibility of immaculate conception or the menacing overtones of an omniscient Santa. It’s there all around us – and we can enjoy it as guests, hosted by a community that celebrates Christmas, or hosted by family and friends who celebrate Christmas. Much the same way we took the little dude to see the Diwali celebrations and the Chinese New Year celebrations. These people are having a party and we get to go too! So far, on his third Christmas, it doesn’t feel fraught. It feels like relief. I see other parents anxious about making Christmas a big special thing, and we can just… not! We don’t have to decide which bits to reject and which bits to adopt, because all of it is one step removed. We’ll do whatever our hosts do (except eat Christmas ham of course!). Last year we went to my parents’ place and he had his first taste of mango and immediately fell in love. This year Christmas will be my sister’s place, with his big kid cousins. He’ll get to pull a Christmas cracker and wear a silly hat, and I’m sure he’ll love it, because he’s a big fan of parties.

At Pesach, we’ll host the party, open our house to non-Jewish relatives, invite them to celebrate with us.

And like Jewish kids everywhere in countries where Christmas is a big deal, he’ll soon be bragging about getting extra presents for Hanukkah and about how his mum invented the amazing Fruit Mince Doughnut.

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