Arts & Culture

California’s Christmas Jews

Growing up in San Francisco, almost every Jewish family I knew celebrated Christmas. These weren’t half-baked, thrown together at the last minute versions of Christmas, either, sops to a dominant holiday. These were full blown celebrations, with tall trees decorated … Read More

By / November 18, 2008

Growing up in San Francisco, almost every Jewish family I knew celebrated Christmas.

These weren’t half-baked, thrown together at the last minute versions of Christmas, either, sops to a dominant holiday. These were full blown celebrations, with tall trees decorated in tinsel and lights, Santa Claus decorations around the house, and sumptuous meals.

And the presents! There were heaps and heaps of them, the most fabulous gifts money could buy. Sometimes you couldn’t even see the carpet around the Christmas tree because packages were piled so high.

It was not until I was in college that I it occurred to me that it was strange that Jews celebrated Christmas. Many of my new friends in freshman year were from the East Coast, and when I described our annual Christmas festivities, they looked at me with strange expressions. "But that’s a Christian holiday!" I heard over and over. "A proper Jewish Christmas is Chinese food and a movie!" they said.

Their horror over celebrating Christmas was just part of a larger discussion of what it meant to be a Jew. My boyfriend at the time had been raised in New York and was Modern Orthodox. He and his father went to shul every Saturday, hats clamped firmly on their heads. My brothers had not even had bar mitzvahs. I only went to temple on occasion.

We were assimilationists, I heard. You West Coast Jews are fakers, others told me.

I still defended my right to celebrate Christmas, but doubt had creeped into the discussion. As the years went on, I still did a full-blown Christmas (I had two daughters by then) but it gradually became more of a hassle than fun.

But while researching my book on Isaias Hellman, my great great grandfather, I learned that my Christmas-loving, never-going to temple ways had deep historical roots that had more to do with adapting to life in America than rejecting Judaism.

Hellman came from Bavaria to Los Angeles in 1859 and fought hard to retain his spiritual connection. There were fewer than 60 Jews in LA then, and no temple or rabbi, so the community worshiped in rented adobes. Hellman helped raise the funds to construct the city’s first synagogue, B’Nai B’rith, in 1873. It is known today as the Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Hellman opened a dry goods store in 1865 and was faced with his first moral dilemma: should he keep it open or closed on Saturday, the Sabbath?  He ultimately decided to conform to American business habits rather than insist on his traditions.

His family also celebrated Christmas. While rummaging through a Jewish newspaper, I saw a notice that Hellman’s daughter gave a "Santa Claus" party in San Francisco in 1897. When I perused more, I saw advertisements in the paper from San Francisco’s leading department stores, suggesting that Jewish readers buy their Christmas presents there.

It turns out that Jews in California have been celebrating Christmas since the 1850s. But they did not consider it a holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Christmas had deep roots in Europe, where it was a winter holiday.  Massachusetts did not make Christmas an official holiday until 1856. The holiday – and Santa Claus – only became popular in the late 1830s when Clarke Moore’s poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas," popular. So an automatic assumption that Christmas = Jesus is wrong.

So my research has assured me that my family is not rejecting Judaism. We are just celebrating it a uniquely American way. Or maybe a way that is just unique to the West Coast. But there are cultural reasons for our celebration, not religious ones.

I think this year may be my best Christmas yet.

Frances Dinkelspiel, author of Towers of Gold, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and she’ll be here all week.  Stay tuned.