Religion & Beliefs

Christmas: The Jewish Kryptonite

For a time, Christmas felt like a kind of kryptonite, in all its various colors and effects. Christmas carols, lights, Santa Claus, and even the inexplicable Stollen, produced in me various levels of discomfort, confusion, and even a little misplaced … Read More

By / December 21, 2007

For a time, Christmas felt like a kind of kryptonite, in all its various colors and effects. Christmas carols, lights, Santa Claus, and even the inexplicable Stollen, produced in me various levels of discomfort, confusion, and even a little misplaced nostalgia. I grew up a very secular Jew, and while we acknowledged that Christmas had come and gone, like most Jews we basically kept our heads down until it was all over. I watched the surreal animated puppets in Santa Claus is Coming to Town with the same hunger that any child watched the annual television show that let him stay up late. I once even sat on Santa’s lap in the mall. But even then I knew I was only a visitor in a foreign land. Santa was a Christian, and his workshop didn’t employ any Jews. Over the years I took on more Jewish observance, and surprisingly my relationship to Christmas changed, even deepened. I looked forward to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as moments to define myself against what I wasn’t. I sat in empty coffee shops, went to the movies with friends, and had Chinese food. The cold air and the deserted streets were glorious. I loved the lights in the trees and the darkened windows of the stores. Christmas meant lovely isolation and I felt deeply Jewish. I would give my friends Christmas presents, but none of those people were really Christian. The obligation felt weird. If they didn’t believe Christ was really born on this day, why weren’t they all in Chinatown with me? My only devout Christian friend eschewed really owning anything. Whenever I gave him a gift he looked at it with the discomfort of a man struggling with a live fish He seemed to worry about it flopping on to the floor. I secretly hated his devout Christianity that was ruining Christmas. What else was I supposed to do for him on this day? There was no way I was going to eat Stollen. Hanukkah, on the other hand, was always a letdown. The attempt to match Christmas in spirit seemed contrived. I would feel irritated when the local mall would put up the obligatory menorah next to the Christmas tree. I didn’t want Hanukkah to have to compete with Christmas. It couldn’t. What is winter without Christmas, without the blinking lights, without the giant plastic peppermint sticks covered in snow? Like this year, Hanukkah sometimes comes so early it doesn’t even feel like winter yet. But then I married a gentile and everything changed. My wife came from a family even more secular than my own. They never talk of God or Christ, and I have never heard them mention the Virgin Mary or the manger. But they celebrate with the fervor of postulants. I grumbled my way through the first few years. I would read The Forward while they busied themselves with wrapping presents and keeping the fire going in the fireplace. I looked out of the corner of eye for any sign of a baby Jesus so I could leap up with an “Ah-Ha! I knew it!” Eventually Johnny Mathis and the smell of the tiny pine cones used in decorations got to me.
What finally undid me, however, was the joy they took in giving. Stockings stuffed to overflowing, the old family photos lovingly framed, just the right sweater, all the perfect books. I would have called it out as obsessive consumption and ugly consumerism, but they always had wonderful things for me. (On Hanukkah, my non-Jewish friends always gave me “Jewish” things, as if Hanukkah presents are supposed to be about Hanukkah.) As I began to embrace Christmas as part of my wife’s tradition I realized that Hanukkah was also special for me as a Jew. It’s just a coincidence that Hanukkah and Christmas fall around the same time of the year. My mistake was thinking that since Hanukkah is really a minor Jewish holiday and didn’t have anything about it that was distinctly seasonal, it wasn’t worth making a big deal about it. But Hanukkah is a Jewish day, and it marks, like so many other Jewish holidays, the sheer fortitude of the Jewish people. Over and over again we survive. Our lights keep burning, even when they are not as nearly as bright as my neighbor’s giant automaton reindeer. And so for the last few years, Hanukah has been another time to mark being Jewish. In my home, we don’t celebrate the two holidays together, but go by where they land on the calendar. And secretly, I hope when I light the shamash and the first candle of the menorah that it will start to snow, and that it will be snowing all winter, especially when one year I take my family to Chinatown, and show them how Christmas is really done.