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A Meaningful Jewish Christmas

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By: Cody Harris   |   December 2, 2022

For a Jewish family like ours that celebrates Hanukkah instead of Christmas, December 25th can be an interesting day. Some years, Hanukkah falls weeks before Christmas, and the holiday is over before many of our friends and neighbors have started hearing reindeer hooves on their roofs. Other years, Hanukkah comes later and the two holidays overlap. But in either case, our holiday traditions don’t match up precisely with what most of Marin is doing on the 25th. While most folks are spending the morning and afternoon opening presents, we’re usually looking for something else fun to do. But pretty much everything is closed on Christmas, so the entertainment pickings are slim. 

Over the years, we’ve found ways to make Christmas meaningful even if we don’t celebrate it ourselves. My wife sets the best example. As a lactation consultant who does well-baby checkups for 2-day old infants, she has one of those important jobs that must be done no matter the holiday. She almost always volunteers to work Christmas, giving her colleagues a chance to be home with their families. She’s not the only one with this idea—she tells me that on Christmas, many of the doctors and nurses are Jewish-Americans, Indian-Americans, Muslim-Americans, and other medical professionals who come from religious or ethnic minorities for whom Christmas is of lesser importance. It’s a wonderful, and often unnoticed example of how our nation’s diversity benefits everyone, and how people from all sorts of backgrounds can quietly come together to respect and enhance our cultural traditions. 

My kids and I are often left looking for fun ways to pass the time. Sometimes we’ll swim at the Jewish Community Center—which is open on Christmas—but we also look for ways to make the day meaningful. We’ve settled on a tradition where we walk down our street (Wolfe Grade), and pick up the litter that has accumulated over the weeks and months. We take big trash bags and grabber sticks and get to work. Unless you’re the Grinch, you probably don’t associate Christmas with trash, but it’s actually become a fun Christmas pastime. With each empty bottle, can, plastic, or other litter we pick up, we feel like we’ve made a small difference in our community. And when we later walk or bike up and down the road, we get to feel proud of the hour or two we spent helping to clean up our neighborhood.

We have tried to link these traditions to Hanukkah’s messages as well. When we light the menorah (the special candelabra Jewish people light each of Hanukkah’s eight nights), we use one taller candle (called the shamash) to light the other candles. The shamash is known as the “helper candle” because it helps the other candles become illuminated. The meaning, however, is deeper. We can all be helper candles, using our own light to spread light to others. One candle’s flame is not diminished when it lights another; the light grows and grows, never dimming through being shared. We tell our kids that by using our time off on Christmas to do something useful for others, we are emulating the shamash, and tying our actions to our own traditions. 

So if you happen to notice that someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas is instead serving their community, that may be their way of spreading the light. And if you see a family on Christmas hauling giant sacks of litter instead of presents, that’s just us finding meaning in a holiday that we love and respect, but isn’t our own. 

This year, the last night of Hanukkah falls right on Christmas. It will be fun to know that so many in Marin will be celebrating on the same day. However and whatever you celebrate, we wish you a Merry Everything and a healthy and happy 2023!

Cody Harris lives in Kentfield with his wife, Rebecca. They have two grade-school aged boys, Emmett and Levi, and a pre-school aged daughter, Annanit. When they’re not chasing their brood around, Cody’s a litigator and Rebecca is an RN and Lactation Consultant.
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