Deborah Sussman's Chocolate Christmas (and Hanukkah)

Christmas comes a little early to Chow Bella this year -- in the form of some darn good holiday storytelling. Today, in honor of the first night of Hanukkah (which begins tonight at sundown) we bring you Deborah Sussman's chocolate-dipped memories.

I know everybody says they love chocolate -- it makes you feel like you're in love, it prevents heart disease, it's better than boring vanilla -- but my love for chocolate is greater than that. It's a deep and abiding love that is born of family, tradition and religion. Two religions, specifically: Judaism and Episcopalianism, which seemed to me, as a child, utterly incompatible -- except for that one piece of the Venn diagram that contained me, my brothers, and chocolate.

For half-Jewish kids, December in particular can be a tricky month. My two younger brothers and I were raised Jewish, but our mother did not convert to Judaism, and she wasn't inclined to abandon the traditions of her childhood, including Christmas stockings. Much to the envy of our friends, my brothers and I also celebrated the eight nights of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah at our house wasn't the festival of presents our friends imagined. It was quiet, bookish, all about our tiny nuclear family. Christmas, in contrast was sparkling and expansive, and something our neighbors were also conspicuously celebrating, as evidenced by the many Christmas specials on television and the lights on all our neighbors' houses.

Christmas and Hanukkah seemed as different from each other as my two sets of grandparents. In one corner, my mother's English parents: the Anglican priest who died of a heart attack decades before I was born, and his widow, Maisie, a garrulous globe-trotter who still used words like "Jewess" when she'd had a scotch too many. And in the other corner, my Oma and Opa, German-Jews who'd settled in Switzerland after the war, where they could still be very German but didn't have to live among actual Germans, who'd tried to murder them.

For me, what the two holidays did have in common, apart from the strange fact that all those Christians were celebrating a Jewish guy's birthday, was chocolate. The stockings we hung by our bedsides Christmas Eve always contained chocolate the next morning, usually Lindt, the mind-blowingly creamy and delicious Swiss confection that my father's parents sent us from Zurich a few times a year and on special occasions. And when we played dreidel at Hanukkah, we played for walnuts and for chocolate coins wrapped in shiny gold foil. The substance they contained bore little resemblance to the Swiss stuff, but I loved it all the same, for what it meant, for how it seemed to help connect the unconnectable pieces of my family.

My own daughter was raised Jewish, and recently had her bat mitzvah, a ritual I hoped would help her feel more rooted than I ever did. But she and I have not foregone Christmas, an important piece of my mother's childhood and my own. We place a homemade Star of David on top of the Christmas tree, just as we did in my childhood home. And I have recently found the perfect stuffer for the toe of my daughter's stocking, that hard-to-fill space in which my parents used to fit a (boring) orange: a Terry's milk chocolate "orange." It's festive and round, and it tastes like the holidays. Both of them.

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Deborah H. Sussman