Looking at Christmas as a Jew
Now that I’m an “adult” (all of twenty-three, which everyone loves to remind me is still so young), I have such an affinity for this time of year. I love how friendly and aware everyone gets—we see such a kinder side of people once the holidays start (as long as you avoid malls and their parking lots), I love the lights (both on my menorah and strung across my neighbors’ bushes and trees), I love the music (though I am very particular when it comes to my holiday music—Judy Garland: good. Christina Aguilera: bad), and I love how our homes and public spaces suddenly get so colorful and joyous (dark reds, blues, golds, evergreens, etc.) while outside it’s bleak and whitewashed.
All of these things make me so happy and none of them really have much to do with the celebration of any particular holiday. But I remember being little and feeling as though reveling in all of the things I loved about this month were reserved for those who celebrated Christmas.
“Eri just loves Christmas,” my friends used to say whenever they saw me admiring glittery snowmen on their trees or requesting the Hanson Christmas album. (I still stand by my belief that it’s a really good album…)
When you’re twelve or thirteen it’s difficult to articulate what it is about this time of year that appeals to you and has nothing to do with Santa Claus or Jesus or Christmas trees. So I started to agree with them, yes I guess I really do love Christmas. And then I felt this sense of injustice—that loving these rather non-denominational things (good cheer, lights, music, colors) meant that I had to express my love for another religion’s holiday and in the process dismiss my Jewish identity.
As I got older, each comment about my love for Christmas felt like a jab. I know my friends didn’t mean it in this way, but it felt like I had a choice to make: Shirk the merriment that permeates everywhere and everyone or embrace it and risk the association with another religion’s holiday at the possible expense of my own.
I chose to embrace. I embraced it all. I made winter trees (the distinction here is that they don’t have ornaments on them and they aren’t traditional Christmas colors) out of felt and Styrofoam, I hung glittery snowflakes from my chandelier.
“What does this say about us as Jews?” My mother asked. Little did she know, this is the question that has plagued me every holiday season since childhood. What does active participation/celebration of non-denominational “festiveness” (seemingly co-opted by commercialism in the name of a Christian holiday) say about Jewish identity?
My feeling: It shouldn’t say anything. There are so many ways to feel the holiday spirit that have nothing, nothing, nothing to do with religion. Volunteering (especially on Christmas day if you’re Jewish!), listening to non-religious holiday music and decorating how you see fit.
I know, because I still remember well, for Jewish families with young children, your approach to handling this season with your children is a “handle with care” type of situation. Jewish identity is important—it should not get lost in the shuffle of this season, but at the same time, I don’t think it does children much good to avoid celebrating in ways that may or may not have a “Christian connotation.”
My parents, both observant Jews who raised my brother and me with strong Jewish values, have been tolerant of my winter trees, my icicles hung from the chandelier, my holiday houses crafted from old cartons of creamers and OJ, and it’s really made me happy to walk through the house and see the décor.
I think Dr. Seuss said it best: “Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”