December 24, 2004
Tonight at sundown Christmas begins. Whether you see it as a Christian religious holiday, or a secularized American holiday, or a thinly-veiled recasting of older festivals like Yule, there's no denying that it plays a major role in American life.
Like a lot of Jews who may not want to admit it, I'm looking really forward to Christmas. I've always liked Christmas. When I was a kid, my best friends across the street were Catholic, and I used to go to their house on Christmas day for cocoa and gingerbread and a present under their tree. Once I went with them to midnight Mass so I could see what that "altar boy" thing was all about! In return, they came to our house on Chanukah for latkes and candle-lighting and a present beside the chanukiyyah, and they joined us for Passover seders, too. I loved being able to move back and forth between tour guide ("okay, this is how you spin a dreidel, watch...") and tourist (kneelers and incense were pretty exotic).
Clearly Christmas isn't comfortable for all Jews. I have friends who find its ubiquity overwhelming. I empathize with their concerns, but I have limited patience with folks who grouse about Christmas as though its omnipresence were meant as a direct insult to them. Jews who find in Christmas an opportunity to feel like victims are ensuring themselves a whole bunch of cranky Decembers.
Me, I'm a holiday geek. I would love to interact with Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist festivals regularly; I don't, but at least I can rub shoulders with Christian holidays. I like seeing how other people do religion. Like Reb Zalman says, "I'm a spiritual peeping Tom." I like rituals, allsorts, and Christmas has plenty for me to enjoy.
Though both have associated traditions, religious Christmas and secular Christmas can seem like two holidays that share a date (Charlie at AnotherThink recently blogged a great quote from C.S. Lewis on that theme). I know some Jews who enjoy secular Christmas (gift-giving, feel-good movies, decking the halls with boughs of holly) but not religious Christmas. For my part, I like the midwinter potlatch/feast qualities of secular Christmas, and I find religious Christmas fascinating. (See above, re: spiritual peeping Tom.)
As Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman says in On Being A Jew At Christmas, "I appreciate, even enjoy, much of the Christmas ambience; I share my Christian neighbors' happiness, as they share mine when my own holy days roll around." He might get along well with Jeff Jacoby, who wrote something similar recently. Charles Krauthammer, too, writes eloquently on the subject of experiencing Christmas happily as a Jew:
I personally like Christmas because, as a day that for me is otherwise ordinary, I get to do nice things, such as covering for as many gentile colleagues as I could when I was a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital. I will admit that my generosity had its rewards: I collected enough chits on Christmas Day to get reciprocal coverage not just for Yom Kippur, but for both days of Rosh Hashana and my other major holiday, Opening Day at Fenway.
(Go Sox!) He also makes the excellent point that one of America's great strengths is the way that religions coexist, majority alongside minority alongside minority, and that we should feel not threatened but enlarged by encountering each others' festivals and traditions.
Rabbi Hoffman's essay, which I briefly quoted above, is worth a read. On Being A Jew At Christmas is smart and thought-provoking. I was particularly struck by his observation that Christmas is so engrained in American culture that eschewing it is almost unthinkable:
It was, and still is, no picnic explaining to your children that Jews don't celebrate Christmas. They stare at you in disbelief. Everyone keeps Christmas, they plead. It is the topic of every television program, the display in every store window. The Radio City Music Hall features its annual Christmas spectacle and the Metropolitan Museum of Art displays Christmas artifacts. What do you mean, We don't celebrate Christmas? Does that make us the Grinch? maybe Scrooge?
I like his point that the spirit of Christmas is assumed to be quintessentially American. If Christmas (the secular, universalized goodwill-toward-men version) is about warmheartedness and generosity, defining ourselves as "the people who don't celebrate Christmas" puts Jews in an odd place. (Like in that song Stan sings on South Park.) Then again, I'd argue that defining ourselves that way is sadly limited. We're Jews because we live Jewishly, because we think Jewishly, because we study Jewish texts and wrestle with Jewish ideas, because we celebrate Jewish holidays and we pray Jewishly...not because we don't do Christmas.
Especially given that many of us do "do" Christmas, in one way or another. Whether that means joining Christian friends or family members in holiday celebrations, or listening to Patrick Stewart read Dickens, or singing a carol or two, most of the Jews I know are touched by Christmas in some way. Nu? Big deal. Miracle on 34th Street is a charming movie, and A Child's Christmas in Wales is well-written stuff. For my part, I've long been amused that in my interfaith family, it's my Jewish father-in-law and I who seem to most enjoy singing Christmas carols each Christmas eve!
Of course, these issues can take on particular importance for those in interfaith families. For interfaith couples, this time of year may involve questions like: can we observe both of our holidays? Do they cancel each other out? Is my holiday diminished if we also celebrate yours? It's a subject that's sparked a bunch of articles at InterfaithFamily.com; clearly the so-called "December Dilemma" has many potential solutions. (In fairness, the "Spring Thing" is a much bigger deal for most religious folks...and the question of how holidays should be navigated in the home is a relevant one year-round, not just during this season.)
I can't answer those questions for anybody else. The best advice I can give to any interfaith couple (indeed, to anyone setting out to weave a life with somebody else's) is, "Talk about your needs, be ready to listen, and keep the lines of communication open." It's worked beautifully for us, which is why this season is pretty stress-free: a minor miracle in any household.
And even Jews who eschew its celebrations can enjoy Christmas in one way or another: my friend Bernice Lewis wrote a lovely essay recently about how Christmas is the only Shabbat left for secularized Jews who don't take the time for weekly sabbath observance. On Christmas, she notes, everything's closed and no one expects anybody to accomplish anything; Jews are free to enjoy quality time with family, and then go eat Chinese food.
Anyway, to all of my readers -- those who celebrate Christmas, and those who don't -- may your December 25th be merry and bright!