I've taken to posting a message on my congregational blog at this time each year, entitled a greeting from the rabbi before Christmas. I wrote it and shared it there last year, and received a lot of response from people with whom it resonated. It seemed worth reposting this year.
It sometimes seems as though our options at this season are either to dislike Christmas (to feel disenfranchised by its ubiquity and Othered by our minority status) or to embrace it and assimilate altogether (losing our Jewishness in the process.) But I think there are more choices than those.
Christmas isn't "our" holiday. For me that's part of its charm. As a working rabbi, there's something delightful about being able to relax on someone else's festive day -- knowing that my Christian colleagues are leading late-night services tonight while I have the option of relaxing in my PJs. (Have fun, y'all.)
I know that I have friends for whom Christmas is a truly meaningful religious time. I enjoy getting glimpses of their religious festival: learning about their theology, hearing their holy songs, resonating with the themes of their sacred story. I've always loved these things. What a glorious wealth of music, story, and tradition has arisen over the course of two thousand years of the Christmas story. My love of, and my practice of, my own tradition isn't diminished by the existence of theirs alongside it.
And I also have friends who experience the day purely as a midwinter festival of gift-giving. For some people the decorated fir tree may have become associated with the cross, but for most it's a fragrant symbol of renewed life in darkest midwinter having nothing to do with Jesus. (And it hasn't always been Christian custom. The early Christian church condemned the decoration of one's home with evergreen boughs, and the Puritans preached against the "heathen custom" of the decorated tree.)
Holiday lights of various kinds lift my spirits at this time of year -- whether or not they're derived, as some argue, from ancient customs of burning a solstice bonfire. And there's always the tradition of eating Chinese food, which Jews have evidently been enjoying on Christmas since the late 1800s. Most of all, I enjoy it when people are kind to one another, and the existence of Christmas seems to spur a lot of people to be nicer and more generous at this time of year. I'm always in favor of that.
I said earlier that Christmas isn't "our" holiday. But that binarism has been complicated by the reality of dual-heritage families. Today many Jews do feel some ownership, because we have Christian family. For some of us, Christmas has become at least partially "ours." Perhaps we hang ornaments on an evergreen, in our own home or in the home of in-laws; or give and receive gifts; or accompany family to late-night services. I don't believe that doing any or all of these makes one "less Jewish."
For others, this can be a time to celebrate with Christian friends even though this holiday isn't "ours" at all. One of my congregants told me that for her, Christmas is like someone else's birthday. "If I'm invited to their party, I go and I have a great time, even though it isn't my birthday."
I love that comparison. Christmas celebrations are like someone else's birthday party. (Come to think of it, they are someone else's birthday party -- that nice Jewish boy described in Rabbi David Zaslow's excellent book Jesus: First-Century Rabbi.) But there's no need to feel threatened by celebrating someone else's simcha.
That's the attitude with which I grew up. My parents had both Jewish friends and Gentile (Christian) friends, and I have many fond childhood memories of Christmas parties which we attended together. The photo of my mother and me which illustrates this post comes from one such party, in 1982.
Whatever your relationship with the holiday may be, I wish you a merry erev Christmas! I'm always tickled at the fact that Christmas is a holiday that Christians celebrate the way that we do -- not starting at sunup, but beginning the night before, an eve followed by a morning. (All Jewish holidays begin at sundown; for that matter, all Jewish days begin at sundown. Think of how the passage of time is first described in Torah: "and there was evening and there was morning, the first day.")
I hope that your night, and your day, are merry and bright.
Related: On "Otherness" and Christmas, 2012.