Like many Jews, I have mixed feelings about the Christmas season. As a child, I did not consider it the least bit alienating. Growing up in the most Jewish neighborhood of Brookline, Christmas never felt like a threat to my identity. Indeed, we sang Christmas songs in school, including the most devout ones such as “Silent Night,” without paying the least bit of attention to their religious significance. In high school Latin class, we learned several Christmas songs in Latin and went caroling with our teacher on Beacon Hill on Christmas Eve. It was a lot of fun and not in the least conflictual.
This comfortable phase of my relationship to Christmas changed radically as a freshman at Wellesley College, where for the first time, it hit me like a ton of bricks that I was a bona fide member of a minority group. Christmas was just the final straw in that realization. There were many Christian elements baked into the Wellesley culture, including chapel and singing grace publicly at the outset of every dinner. On Sunday, we “praised Father, Son and Holy Ghost” in our prayer, or should I say others did, as I refrained. No one seemed to find that offensive, and I kept my mouth shut. I still recall the pre-Christmas dinner in our dormitory dining hall prior to December vacation break. It was filled with Christmas decorations, carols and general Christmas-y spirit with students dressed in their finery. For me, it was the height of feeling like the “other.”
No one in any way meant to harm or diminish me or my Jewish identity. It was a byproduct of that alienating realization I experienced of my minority status in a Christian majority country. And thus began my ambivalent attitude toward Christmas and my feeling of being left out. Mind you, my case is complicated by the fact that three-quarters of my mother’s mother’s family are not Jewish, and are indeed mostly Catholic. And we are very close and loving cousins. Every year we enjoy a holiday/Christmas party with this branch of my family that is always fun, but the Christmas aspect serves as backdrop to the family reunion.
Armed with my customary ambivalence, my husband and I attended the recent Christmas party of neighbors on the Saturday night before Christmas. We had indeed done so before and enjoyed the company, but this time I had something of an epiphany: I experienced the true spirit of Christmas and felt relatively comfortable with it, and more at peace with my outsider status.
The hosts of the party are devout Catholics, as were most of the guests who are members of a parish church in Brookline. The other guests were either neighbors or Brookline residents connected to the hosts through their children. My husband and I fell into two of those three categories. Several of the guests were Jewish, each of whom I knew. I also happen to know many of the parishioners, as I have taken Israeli delegations to their church to speak over the years.
I had just learned through a different source that New Year’s Day marked the day of the circumcision of Jesus, so I mentioned that to one of the guests. Being a practicing Catholic, she was not being told something she did not already know, but she could not remember what the official Christian name of the circumcision day was. As fate would have it, the parish priest appeared in front of us at that opportune moment, but after a few guesses on his part—Was it the Epiphany? The Advent?—it became apparent he could not recall either! (I have since Googled this, and it’s called the Octave of the Nativity.)
It was indeed a humorous moment as another Jewish guest and I, along with two Catholic women, surrounded the poor priest, who was just trying to get to the kitchen for a drink, hounding him with questions about ritual. Very Jewish, actually!
We also learned why there are 12 days of Christmas, why you really should not buy or decorate the tree until a few days before Christmas, the meaning of Jan. 6, the Feast of the Three Kings day, etc.
The high point of the evening came a bit later. As my husband and I were preparing to leave, we were told that the caroling was about to begin. How could we leave? I had thought caroling was exclusively an outdoor activity. I had not imagined an indoor sing-a-long. So songbooks were passed out, and we took our seats. What followed was beautiful, heart-warming and indeed precious. It turns out that one of our hosts is the choirmaster of the church with an absolutely beautiful voice. He led the singing, accompanied by the church organist playing piano. I sang and hummed along with the old standards, those songs we all hear daily in shopping malls and supermarkets that have lost any spiritual or religious significance in those commercialized settings.
After the music, my husband and I said our farewells and left that special gathering on a high. What exactly happened? It was very refreshing to be included in such an authentic religious and communal experience. The music, the ritual, the grappling with the rules and practices regarding Christmas trees, the 12 days of Christmas, the meaning of New Year’s—for the first time in many years, I did not feel threatened and excluded by Christmas.
I have no Christmas envy whatsoever. I am a proud Jew who enjoys our traditions and is very cognizant of Jewish history. I do not regard Christmas as a secular holiday and would never consider having a Christmas tree, a wreath or even a poinsettia plant in my home. Nevertheless, at my neighbors’ gathering, I was able to put aside all the baggage of historical animosity and persecution of Christians against Jews.
That history is real. It’s painful and it must never be forgotten. But life is about living with tension and inconsistency. Deriving pleasure from the cultural traditions of friends and neighbors and celebrating our common humanity is an imperative and has never been as essential as it is today with the rising tide of hate that surrounds us. My Jewish love for ritual, song, questioning and, most important, community, led me to enjoy the most positive Christmas experience I’ve had in years.
Such a joy!
This post has been contributed by a third party. The opinions, facts and any media content are presented solely by the author, and JewishBoston assumes no responsibility for them. Want to add your voice to the conversation? Publish your own post here.