I grew up outside of Christmas, as one would expect. I wasn't exactly jealous of it because we had Chanukah and that took care of the gift issue in addition to adding the candle lighting, which is a compelling ritual. Chanukah is not remotely equivalent to Christmas in that Chanukah is a minor holiday, celebrating a war of liberation from the Syrian branch of the Greek empire and a minor miracle from that period. In fact, Chanukah was not originally the Jewish gift holiday, Purim was, but it was shifted, at least in America, to keep Jewish kids from feeling really left out during Christmas. I don't think Chanukah is celebrated the same way overseas, which stands to reason because in most places in the old days Jews overseas were not as integrated with local populations as we are here.
Occasionally you'll hear Jews saying that Chanukah is as good/cool as Christmas. As a Jew I can tell you they're full of shit.
Christmas is everywhere, and it is I think the biggest reminder to American Jews that we are not everyone else precisely because it is everywhere and we do not belong to it and it does not belong to us. And yes, Christmas is commercial to an extent that can get annoying, which makes it insanely ubiquitous. But it is also beautiful. Those evergreens are gorgeous, the lights through whole neighborhoods can be magical, and the music is fantastic, even the Christmas music written by Jews, and there's a lot of that. I like most of the decorations, particularly anything evergreen, and all those red and green colors. I'm not into all lawn displays - nativity scenes don't do it for me for obvious reasons and my tackiness tolerance isn't infinite.
My wife does not come from a Jewish family. She reasoned herself out of Christianity as a teenager, but Christmas is about way more than religion. It is about family, time of year, and it has its magic. When I first went with her to visit her family in Ohio when we were first going together, she woke me up at about 5:30 in the morning because she was too excited to sleep. We hung around in the living room around the tree waiting for people to get up, and then we opened presents in turn. She was so amazingly happy.
I spent a lot of Christmases in Ohio. Sometimes I went with some family members to the Christmas Eve church service. Everyone held a lit candle and sang carols. It was peaceful, happy, reverent, beautiful.
She asked me about having a tree. This was well over ten years before J was born. I reasoned that if we'd adopted a kid from Korea or someplace we'd celebrate Korean holidays, so why wouldn't I extend the same courtesy to my wife? As it stands, years later we adopted a kid from China and she turned out to be so uninterested in Chinese culture that we gave up trying to educate her in it. Anyway, we had Christmas trees. I understand some Jews do but growing up I was never one of those, nor was I one who had the rather pathetic blue and white Chanukah Bush, a joke when I was growing up but something someone eventually actually marketed, I think on the West Coast.
So for years we had Christmas trees and sometimes decorated the house with lights (a little). I love Christmas trees. I love their look, I love their smell. I loved shopping for ornaments, which my wife and I did both jointly and for each other. Memories are attached to each one. I loved decorating the tree. I love the lights. The holiday isn't mine, it will never be mine because of my beliefs, but getting involved in those rituals meant I kind of belonged to my surroundings more. I'm glad to have experienced that just so I understand what it feels like.
Then J was born, and we continued having trees. As he got older, my wife asked him how he felt about the trees, and he replied that we were Jewish and trees in the house made him uncomfortable. So we stopped. I didn't get involved in that decision.
My wife is often sort of lost during Christmas. We'll go back to trees one of these days, we just never seem to get around to it. I know where the ornaments are. She still loves Christmassy stuff, particularly decorations and lights. So we typically leave town. Sometimes we go to Disney World. They have gingerbread houses big enough to walk into. This year we'll go to Ohio because my mother in law wants us to come and I think that will be good.
We haven't gone down to Manhattan since we moved to New York a year and a half ago. We will try to go between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year - the department store window displays in the City are famous. One year, many years ago, we got tickets for NYCB (New York City Ballet) opening night of Nutcracker, which they do every year because it's so important for fundraising. One of our best friends, J's godmother in fact, worked in development at NYCB at the time so she got us a backstage tour before the performance. Way cool. I think the most unexpected thing I learned is that the tree that grows from the stage floor isn't round from the top, it's oval, because the audience only really sees one side of the tree.
A lot of Jews I know have their own Christmas traditions. One is to volunteer at a local hospital so Christian staff can have Christmas Eve off. Another is to go out to eat Chinese food. Chinese restaurants generally don't close on Christmas and Jews love Chinese food - yeah, I know, it's stereotypical, but we do.
Am I offended by someone wishing me Merry Christmas? Of course not. In America overall, if you wish someone a Merry Christmas, in forty-nine cases out of fifty the person you're addressing won't be Jewish. Aside from the atheists, the non-Christian populations tend to be even smaller than the Jewish population, so Merry Christmas is still a good bet. And of course a lot of atheists celebrate Christmas because so much of it isn't religious at all these days, plus so many atheists have Christian family. How do I feel about Happy Holidays? I'm happy with that because it's considerate. I like that it matters to someone to bother to include me. I don't like that Happy Holidays is in some circles a PC obligation because all that does is inspire a backlash in some circles, like that idiotic notion that Christmas is under attack, and considerateness/consideration should never inspire a backlash.
I'm writing this in early November. I'll just let it publish on Christmas Eve.