It’s Christmas: What’s A Jew to Do?

Preliminary note on names: everyone quoted in this article is identified by celebrity pseudonym. If the person’s fake name is bolded on first reference, it means that the celebrity and the person represented are Jewish. Thanks Adam Sandler, Jew or Not Jew and Famous Jews.

Thanks also to our esteemed host Linda, for her technical assistance, and to the hubs, for coming up with words when I had the aphasia.

This post is dedicated to my father, Saul Z. Finn, zichrono l’vracha [of blessed memory], on his yahrzeit (the anniversary of his passing). I wish he were here to weigh in. I would have called him Steven Spielberg. Hi, Dad!

(Mom, stop crying.)


There are things that happen at this time every year. Malls get crowded. There are multiple parties to go to. A big ol’ tree gets lit downtown… and, oh, yeah, if you are Jewish, you have Chanukah. For a while, I tried to explain to people that Chanukah is not the most important holiday of the Jewish year (that would be Yom Kippur, but as far as happier occasions, we have Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Pesach (Passover), and Shavuot that all arguably rank higher in importance than Chanukah), but I finally realized that my explanation bummed folks out. People (and by people, I mean non-Jews) want Chanukah to be the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. They think that everyone should have something to celebrate at this time of year that is of Christmas caliber. So, I’ve basically given in.

These days I am finding that elevating Chanukah to this level is crucial for cutting Christmas envy off at the knees. They make a big deal out of Christmas in child care centers and schools, making my children believe that something is missing from their lives.  Last year I explained to Einstein that we are Jewish and don’t celebrate Christmas, and, to him, there was nothing good about that. This year, I decided I had to try and make it good. (For those of you just tuning in, “Einstein” refers to my older son who is 5 going on 6.)

A CONVERSATION ON COMPANY TIME (Shhhh….)

I was having an e-mail chat with a friend at work, Lucy Griffiths, and told her I was having a Chanukah party for a few of Einstein’s friends, so that he could show off his holiday to them. She wrote: A Chanukah party sounds like a great idea! It must be difficult for little ones to see so much celebration over Christmas and I can certainly understand a little envy. But Chanukah is cool and showing his friends all about it would probably make it very special for [Einstein].”

Exactly.

But then Griffiths, who, as it turns out, loves a good discussion about religion (as do I, obviously), said the following, after apologizing for possibly insulting or offending me (she didn’t):

It always seemed to me that celebrating both holidays made sense since the Hebrew bible is part of the Christian religion (even though I realize Chanukah text was mostly removed from the Old Testament by Martin Luther) it’s still part of the Christian faith when you look at it from an historical perspective. And, Christmas is only a religious holiday to those who choose to celebrate is as such. It is an actual federal secular holiday created by Congress just like the 4th of July; anyone of any faith has a right to celebrate it. It can certainly be celebrated without religious significance. I always thought enjoying it as a secular holiday and Chanukah as a religious holiday made sense.

In response, I said “[a]ctually, as you know, people’s degree of religious observance runs on a continuum, and I’ve found that there is a similar broad range of Christmas observance among Jews. For example, my sister’s friend [Alicia Silverstone] couldn’t believe we didn’t get any presents on Christmas. In her family, there was always one present to open on Christmas Eve and she had never realized that other Jews didn’t do that. Then there’s my ex-brother-in-law [Tom Arnold] who grew up having a Christmas tree in the house every year.” This is very much dependent on your upbringing, I submitted; one usually feels comfortable with whatever one did or not do at home growing up. “My parents were completely fine with having us celebrate Christmas, Easter, whatever, at other people’s houses, and I feel the same way (we will probably be going to the neighbors’ at Christmas), but they, and I, would rather not celebrate it in our house. We will go see everyone else’s lights, but not have lights of our own.” As for the “secular” aspects of Christmas, I said that “[m]any don’t see the tree or Santa Claus as anything religious. I can’t help but make that connection.” The person I most admire in the world, Golda Meir, told me the other day that “the Christmas tree in and of itself is a pagan thing, but it nevertheless has a religious connotation.”

Take songs, for example. The Wikipedia article on Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song” notes that “[t]he song also mentions ‘you don’t need “Deck the Halls” or “Jingle Bell Rock.” ’ [“Cause you can spin the dreidel with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock–both Jewish! Ironically, neither one of those holiday songs explicitly mentions Christmas. ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ is a general winter song, and ‘Deck the Halls’ mentions New Year and Yule but not Christmas.” That may be so, Wikipedia, but, with all due respect, it doesn’t matter. They are Christmas songs. They just are. That doesn’t mean I didn’t sing them when I went to that caroling party years ago with a group of college friends. I sang ‘em. Would I host my own caroling party? No. Do I admire trees? Yes. Do I have a tree? No. Do I admire lights, and take my kids to see them? Yes. Do I decorate with lights? No. Not even blue and white ones in the shape of a Star of David on the roof? No.

Lord, no.

MY OPINION AIN’T ENOUGH: GETTING MORE INFO FROM MAH PEEPS

I knew that if my various friends and family members were faced with this question, they would probably approach it differently and perhaps explain it better for Griffiths. So I forwarded it on.

Eager to jump into this debate, David Draimer thought the idea of celebrating both holidays in light of Christianity’s having grown out of Judaism “interesting.” But he noted that “Christians don’t follow any of the holidays in the Old Testament.”

I consulted with my constant confidante Amy Grant about the idea of Jewish law being part of the Christian faith, since I just don’t see very many Christians celebrating Chanukah, except for those with Jewish spouses. Grant told me that Jesus came along “ so we could remain in relationship with G-d,” because keeping all of those Old Testament laws is just too difficult. So Christians don’t have to keep all of the “original” laws, although they can, and some do, she said. According to Grant, the Apostle Paul said that faith, not obedience, must be the foundation for the relationship with G-d, which makes sense when you consider that those laws were given to Moses, years and years after the covenant with Abraham. “Paul … points out that G-d declared Abraham righteous before the law existed,” Grant explained. “Christians are not bound to obey the Old Testament law to earn G-d’s favor. Christians live a lifestyle of obedience to Christ and to the teachings of the New Testament as an act of Gratitude,” Grant added.

(And by the way, it wasn’t Grant who spelled “G-d” like that. This is something Jews do to make sure they don’t take the name of the Lord in vain. So I edited. I also made a few itty bitty corrections. Hope you don’t mind. It’s what I do. Some folks can create pharmaceuticals that save lives. I can spell.)

Draimer stressed that Chanukah “is part of the Jewish post-Biblical history,” and is not a yontiff (that’s a Yiddishism, referring to holidays on which Jews do not work). Draimer went on to say:

As for Christmas, even though in the US it has been commercialized and the whole reason for its celebration blurred, it still is a very religious holiday, especially internationally. I always looked cross-eyed at Jewish people who celebrate both holidays, that are not married to non-Jewish people. Are they celebrating the birth of the Messiah we do not believe in or celebrating JC Penney’s 25% increase in sales?

HOW DO YOU JEW?

“Chanukah is one of those holidays that asks a Jew if it possible to make a distinction between being a Jew by nationality, and a Jew by religion. Chanukah is both a celebration of Jewish nationalism, and marks a renewal of faith and practice,” said my old friend Neil Gaiman, who could make any Jew with a tree in their living room feel instantly terrible, and humble those of us who have forgotten the historical details drummed into our heads when we sat in Rabbinics class (no, I’m not talking about anyone in particular, why?)

It is important to remember that the meaning of the word “chanukah” is rededication. The center of the celebration is not the victory of the Maccabees over the Asyrians, but the reclamation, rededication, and return to the Temple. This is the purpose of the lighting of the menorah. Jewish law forbids us from carrying out any actions that were done in the Temple until it is rebuilt. The lighting of the chanukiah is the exception (a technicality since the menorah in the Temple had 7 branches, while the chanukiah has 8). I think it is a mistake to say the festival is not religious, and to my mind Jews have collectively lessened the holiday’s significance in a subconscious attempt to steer it to the secular status that Christmas has gained in popular culture so that it can “compete” with Christmas, which is so culturally prevalent (for non-religious reasons).

In this vein, a discussion of Chanukah at Judaism 101 notes: “It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar.”

TIME FOR FUN! OR WHATEVER!

My great gal pal Debra Messing perceives a heterogeneous universe of approaches to Dec. 25th.

“Christmas” as it is practiced in America means different things to different people. The only real commonality we can say we all have–and there are even some poor Wal-Mart workers who are outside this part of the Venn diagram — is that it’s a day off.

Messing sees three broad categories of Christmas observers, 1) those for whom it is religious, who, at one extreme, might even skip the whole Santa bit, 2) those for whom it is more spiritual, “connected to pagan rituals,” and 3)

Then there are those (like you and me) who recognize it not as a religious or possibly even spiritual holiday, but who are too much in the minority to just breeze on by it. After all, it’s a day off when most of the rest of our friends and neighbors are getting gifts, getting together, getting drunk. I think we’re actually more fortunate: There’s no emotional freight tied to the day, so we get to do whatever we want.

I’m with Messing on this, because for a lot of people all the holiday prep is very stressful. Stringing all those lights has got to be an enormous pain in the rear, and I would not want to spend a hungover New Year’s Day taking them down. I must point out that Amy Grant would disagree with Messing here. Grant believes that Christmas is a religious holiday designed to commemorate Jesus’s birth. Like Griffiths, Grant bemoans the commercialization. But in defense of Jews who might want to celebrate Christmas, she says, “[t]he cookies, the parties, the presents, the music, it is all FUN and I do not blame people for wanting to jump in. … I know of no other religious holiday that so many people in the world want to celebrate even though it is not really ‘their’ holiday.”

Learning about other religions can be fascinating, Draimer acknowledged, and we should all take care to respect the beliefs of others. As a Jewish student at the Catholic University of America, my friends and I were constantly experiencing both; Catholics tend to be defensive of their religion but are also very tolerant of other religions. Draimer feels, however, that it is “disrespectful to celebrate just the holidays that are ‘fun’ and not those which have deeper meanings to those religions.” This brought to my mind the Jews for Jesus, who probably capture many a Jew who “wishes” he/she could celebrate Christmas without feeling wrong about it (oh, don’t get me started on Jews for Jesus…oh, yeah, I’m the one who brought it up…let’s save that subject for a future post, shall we?).

C’MON, LET’S HEAR IT! SPIRIT!

Griffiths read Gaiman’s words about the secularization of both holidays, and agreed that “that trend may be disturbing.” However, she suggested that “what many non-Christians are really trying to do by celebrating Christmas in some measure is not minimizing the significance of Chanukah or whatever they celebrate, but they are attempting to participate in the very worthwhile aspects of the Christmas holiday that have nothing to do with religion. I’m not talking about the outward secular images of Christmas, but the spiritual (not religious) aspects. Charles Dickens sums up my sense of Christmas perfectly:

I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round … as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely…. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

(When Griffiths sent me this quote (from A Christmas Carol, natch), she put it in a classic script, Dickensian font, so that as I read I could hear the proper accent.)

I DUNNO, WHAT D’YOU WANNA DO?

Jews have to look for things to do on Christmas day, since it’s a day off and nothing much is open. If you’re invited to a Christmas celebration somewhere, great. If not, there’s a big to-do at the Jewish Community Center, our synagogue does a bowling thing, and our local Chabad (that’s a Chasidic organization) is running a camp for kids. As a Jew-with-nuttin’-to-do, the one thing you can always count on is movies and Chinese food. “And now the goyim are horning in on that too,” laments Gaiman. “Over the last several years I’ve noticed a lot more non-Jews at the movies on Christmas (most likely due to Hollywood’s trending to Christmas day releases), and some are even showing up at Chinese places. What happened to trolling the ancient Yuletide carol (Yuletide is in fact a pagan festival)?” To which Griffths piped up, “that is my point. Christmas has its origins in many diverse cultures and derives its meaning from one’s personal choice. Why begrudge anyone who wants to open their heart and experience some joy?”

(I see your popcorn and wonton soup, Neil, and I raise you … gelt! In a blog I read regularly, I started when I saw that the blogger’s nephew “got a bag of chocolate coins in his stocking on Christmas. ” Dude! Chocolate coins? Come ON! That’s totally a Chanukah thing. That is like THE Chanukah thing!

JEWS DON’T NEED NO STINKIN’ CHRISTMAS

When I am conflicted about something, I can always count on Hank Azaria to say something to make me feel better, or at least to make me laugh. He said “[i]t’s easy to get swept away by the razzle-dazzle of Christmas, just like it’s easy to get swept away by an insipid Christmas movie–until you realize that the movie is, in fact, insipid. But ‘celebrating’ both holidays does not make sense, any more than trying to actually be both Christian and Jewish simultaneously.” (Azaria completely agrees with me on the Jews for Jesus thing. Which I won’t get into now. Promise.)

Christians often use the Jewish Scriptures (the “Old Testament”) as a proof text for Christianity, rather than reading them as holy words in and of themselves, since Christians believe that their religion supplanted Judaism. Who knows, but this might explain why Martin Luther, who so infamously hated the Jews and wrote a nearly 500 page book titled Against the Jews and Their Lies, removed the Chanukah story from his bible–it’s a story that shows the Jews standing strong, beating back and surviving against improbable odds. Although the events took place BCE, they don’t square with Luther’s theology, so out goes the Book of Maccabees.

“Christmas doesn’t cease to be a religious holiday merely because it has been overly commercialized and because spiritually lethargic or ignorant people refuse to recognize its religious nature.” Azaria continued. “There’s a big hint in the name of the holiday: CHRISTmas.” Just because the government gives everyone a day off doesn’t make the holiday secular, he said. Taking Draimer’s JC Penney comment even further, Azaria concluded:

There’s really no reason to celebrate Christmas minus the religious aspect, because without that, I’m not sure what anyone is celebrating. Discounted shopping? Yet another crappy Hollywood Christmas-themed Hollywood movie? Tinsel? The common theme to all of these: Surface, surface, surface, glitz and glamour, baubles. In a sense: idolatry. I think we’re better than that. Ultimately, those who insist on celebrating a “secular” Christmas do so because they know too little about the riches provided by their own faith. Put this another way: When you celebrate Independence Day, a real secular holiday, you probably invest it with meaning, considering for a moment what the day is about. You light a firework or go to a barbecue, or read an op-ed that day about the day’s events, and you are reminded of the importance of our freedoms and responsibilities. But on December 25th, when you’re “celebrating” CHRISTmas, as a Jew, what exactly are you celebrating?

There’s just too much richness and depth in our faith to want to have to bother with celebrating other people’s holidays.

Okay, that is all I have. (You wanted more maybe?) Please comment to your heart’s content. That means you, too, sources! You may remain pseudonymous or unmask yourselves as you wish.

And now I leave you with a classic Friends scene. Please watch it even if you have no soul hated that show. Of particular note is Chandler’s line starting at 4:53.

Tune in next time when—if I can put aside my great fear—I will tackle … wait for it … politics! -gasp!-

8 thoughts on “It’s Christmas: What’s A Jew to Do?

  1. 12, you know very well that the purpose of Christmas is that there should be one day a year when you know for sure you’re going to get a great seat at the movies, and that you know you can turn out an emergency minyan at your local Chinese restaurant.

    This year was no exception, even in my neck of the woods.

  2. First off – your mom was not the only one in tears over the dedication and this blog was awesome. Well written, even if some spelling needed to be corrected – one would hate to leave the editor with nothing to do! I applaud the way you wove so many opinions together to settle in on your final point. And when you do come back with the Jews for Jesus blog, let me have a crack at it, my guess is we might have some different views on that one too!

    bottom line though – a job very well done!
    Here’s to a new year, no matter what your beliefs!

  3. Shtuey–you know that and I know that, but there are many (Jew and non-Jew alike) that don’t. Not celebrating Christmas was always a no-brainer to me and my family, but impossible to explain. (Like a lot of Jewish stuff–keeping kosher only in the home, for example.)

    This year, oddly, we had actual plans, because my in-laws decided to “do Chanukah” on Christmas day. But next year we’re back at the movies since Chanukah is early. And in 2010, the first night of Chanukah is Dec. 1, a mere 6 days post-Thanksgiving.

    Amy–thanks!! and you opened the door for me to mention that if you see some punctuation errors in this article, I do know about them, but I can’t fix them. I did something dumb that caused an evi HTML gremlin into this post, and if I make any edits, it attacks and screws things up.

  4. As always, I have a lot of thoughts on this one.

    I’m pretty sure that Christian families don’t hear the following words from their children, “I wish we were Christian.” Yes, my older son uttered those words this year because all of his friends were celebrating Christmas and he was the only Jewish kid in his class. I have to ask, how would you feel if your kids came home and said, “I wish we were Jewish?” No, you’re right, that will never happen. Why? Because the sensationalism of Christmas is so great that it doesn’t matter if Hanukkah was ever elevated to that level. I’d argue that as much as we try to elevate Hanukkah to compete with Christmas, it will never win. Never! Simply out of pure numbers, there are more of them than there are of us. And, it really doesn’t matter WHY they celebrate Christmas, it’s just that they do celebrate. My mother is not religious at all, but Christmas is her favorite holiday. She loves family, special dinners, lights and trees and in general celebrating a time of year that has always been special to her. It’s ritual. Ritual has very intense meaning. Ritual is one of the reasons I CHOSE Judaism. It’s not because I believe it is the one true path. I don’t think there is one truth path. I think we’re all praying to the same entity and to fight over that is beyond the definition of insanity. Additionally, that’s only IF that entity exists. I still question that, and I think everyone should because we do a lot of damage on this earth because of our “beliefs.” But I digress…I, too, try to equal out Hanukkah to the degree that my kids don’t feel left out. However, we infuse that time with a lot of our own ritual and learning about why Hanukkah has meaning, even though it’s a low level holiday. It was nice that I was asked to come to Ari’s school this year to give a presentation about Hanukkah because THAT made him special. I actually kind of like that I fended off the comments about wishing to be Christian by emphasizing how special he was for being Jewish. Thank God (sorry, the whole spelling of the name is one of the rituals I have not taken on) Ari has his Sunday school class, which he loves, to make the whole holiday even more special.

    “Catholics tend to be defensive of their religion but are also very tolerant of other religions.”

    I had to laugh at this statement. When I was the office administrator of our synagogue in Kentucky, some priests from the local diocese made a visit to the rabbi. While they were waiting, they asked me if I was Jewish. It’s a valid question since I don’t “look” Jewish. I told them that I had converted. The priests stood up simultaneously, and one of them looked directly at me and exclaimed, “Why on earth would you do that?” He walked out immediately after, eliminating any possible way for me to explain. But that wouldn’t have mattered. He clearly believed that what I did was wrong. So, tolerance is a mighty big word here.

    With regard to Chinese food and movies, we’ve never done the movies, but this year we DID go to a Chinese restaurant. The place was packed beyond their capacity and I’d say 50% of them had on some sort of Christmas garb (Christmas trees on a sweater, a holly pin, Santa socks, etc.). You have to wonder how sacred the holiday is anymore if they’re all willing to escape it with us.

    I LOVE the Friends clip. I remember roaring when I saw that the first time. I’m sure that situation happens in real life more than we want to think about. It’s hard enough dealing with Christmas in an all Jewish family, let alone dealing with it in a mixed family.

  5. Linda–as you might have noticed from “Shall I Tell You My Dream?” I’m finding it pretty hard to do right by my kids religion-wise. There’s no way I can recreate my upbringing for them. But I never had Christmas envy that I can remember (although apparently my sister did), so it has to be possible to exorcise it!

    The whole story of being at Jew at Catholic U. is probably a subject for another post. (I’m rackin’ ’em up.)

    As for Friends, I think that the writers stole this line from me: “if Santa and the Holiday Armadillo are ever in one place for too long, the universe will implode!” It’s way more funny when Chandler says it, of course.

  6. Interesting essay you have there.

    I think it says a lot that the issue of “I wish I were Christian!” tends to come up for children primarily during the Christmas blitz. And why shouldn’t it? The parts of Christmas that most appeal to children have little to nothing to do with the religious element; who wouldn’t like those parts?

    So I’m sure you don’t take it to heart, but you shouldn’t — by the time they’re old enough to know what being Christian actually means, they’ll have a better understanding of — well, what it actually means. Like, a belief system that happens to come with a merry and glittery year-end celebration, not the other way around.

    You write: “Catholics tend to be defensive of their religion but are also very tolerant of other religions.”

    On a one-to-one basis I’ve found this to be true, but anyone who has ever read “Constantine’s Sword” knows that history does not bear this out.

  7. All right, when I made that generalization about Catholics I was talking about my limited experience: 3 years at a Catholic university (THE Catholic University, actually 🙂 … my fellow dorm-dwellers were quite surprised to discover I was Jewish, what with my red hair and Irish-sounding last name; I wish I’d earned a nickel for every time I had to explain). I found that the Catholic were curious about Judaism, and when the Jewish Law Students Association set up a table in the lobby at Purim time, they came for the Hamantaschen but stayed for the explanation! Also, when I attended, about a third of the law school faculty was Jewish, among them an Orthodox rabbi. Which, to me, was evidence of tolerance and understanding (esp. since some of these teachers would cancel class on Jewish holidays). I got more on this, but I’ll save it 😉

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