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Being Jewish at Christmastime

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A recent discussion at my shul, Congregation Emanu-El, introduced me to Sue Fishkoff’s essay “My Family Tree is Loaded with Tinsel.” In this short but insightful piece, Fishkoff cracks open a quiet taboo of American Jewish life: what some Jews do at Christmastime. She writes that while many of her fellow San Franciscan Jews will be participating in the modern tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas, she will be celebrating the holiday at her non-Jewish mother’s house.

Cue exaggerated gasp: What? A proudly self-identified Jew – and a staff writer at a Jewish newspaper, no less! – engaging in Yuletide merriment? Yet, as Fishkoff observes, American Jews and Christmas are hardly frenemies anymore: “In this country, one out of every two Jews marries a non-Jew, and those non-Jews have parents and siblings and uncles and aunts. That’s a lot of Christmas trees.”

Indeed. One of those Christmas trees stands tall and proud – well, proud, at least – in my living room. I picked it out at Greenbluff with my girlfriend, who is Lutheran. But even if we weren’t dating, I might very well have wanted a Christmas tree. My father, who died in 2003, was Jewish, and my mother is, too. Yet my dad’s first wife was raised Christian, so they and their three children celebrated both Christmas and Chanukah each December. After marrying my mom, my father didn’t want to give up Christmas.

My father’s unconventional wish shaped my childhood. Before I ever attended Hebrew school, I believed in Santa. Six weeks before my February bar mitzvah, I’d unwrapped presents on Christmas morning, as I did every year. As a young child, I loved Christmas so much that I asked my father one night, as he put me to bed, whether I could be Christian. He told me we could talk about it down the road. “Just don’t tell your grandmother,” he said, before turning out the light.

But even my grandmother, who fled Nazi Germany and married a fellow Holocaust survivor, didn’t seem to mind my family’s Christmas celebration. She came with us on Christmas Eve when we sang carols around the piano with two families – one Jewish, one Christian – we’d known for decades. She opened presents on Christmas and watched with glee as I discovered the ones she’d bought me. Each year until my father died, we four Jews gathered by the fireplace on Christmas Day to enjoy some unabashed holiday cheer.

Today, when I tell people I celebrate Christmas, I do so with a mixture of pride and caution. Sometimes I’m worried about what other Jews will say. In theory, I should also worry that I’m giving non-Jews the wrong idea about Jews: that we’re so culturally confused that we’ll gaily adopt whatever holiday the majority group — Christians — can seduce us with.

A nonreligious person once accused me of submitting to that notorious oppressor, Christian America, by celebrating its flagship holiday. And while the personal is political, it doesn’t make sense to let other people dictate the political meaning of your personal practices. That’s not much more empowering than cultural oppression. I’d rather learn to live in harmony with the majority culture than build my identity around angry resistance.

What my father impressed upon me about Christmas was that it was one of several winter holidays with a common purpose: to bring light and warmth into dark, cold nights. Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and Solstice are all part of a cultural program we use to help us get through the bleaker months. These holidays share a focus on togetherness — which, ideally, means love. And there are few spiritual values more universal than love.

Whatever your December festivities, may they be merry and bright.

Neal Schindler

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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7 comments

  1. Very interesting article Neal! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. i have jewish friends who love this holiday and i am grateful for your perspective that doesn’t get all angry and defensive/offended about this ancient and multivalent holiday. light, hope, family, love, a giving spirit…these are all good things and need to be lifted up!

  3. This is an interesting article. I have a lot of Jewishness in my heritage (though I don’t identify as such). I do know that the elephant in the room is that Christmas can have deep associations with the holocaust. Christmas is and was a big, big deal in German society, and its close associations with German, Austrian, and Polish atrocities during WW2 brings back painful memories for those who have personally witnessed, or are related to those witnesses, of the holocaust. The holiday is not a time of merriment for everyone.

    I hate to be “that guy” that brings that up. My wife and I celebrate Christmas. I think it’s tragic that a holiday associated with peace on earth, a warm light in the darkness, and anticipation of better things to come in the new year should be instead associated with the horrors of genocide. Is there a change happening where American Jews are beginning to let go of some of those associations? Is there a reclamation of the holiday season among American Jews? I’m really curious to see what is underlying a new embrace of the Christian winter holiday.

  4. It’s interesting that you should mention that, Sam. As a German-American Jew, I have very positive associations with Germany, where my grandmother was born (and from which she fled during WWII). I have particularly fond memories of German Christmastime, since I spent a significant portion of my childhood in Freiburg, Germany. I recognize, however, that many American Jews, especially of my grandparents’ and parents’ generations, may have less positive thoughts and feelings about Germany. It’s also worth noting that my father was a German literature professor and my mother is a Holocaust studies scholar (and German professor).

  5. That’s quite interesting. I really don’t want to take Christmas joy away from anyone. I just thought it worth mentioning in the context of my own family experiences. I think if more Jews in America are willing to let healing happen with regards to this holiday, that’s a very good thing.

  6. I read your article with great pride and admiration, Neal. The perspectives you bring are insightful and sensitive, and the memories you detail are so meaningful and, for me, filled with warmth and love. Thank you for writing this article. May your, and everyone’s, festivities during the beautiful season be filled with joy and love.

  7. Oh, I can so identify with this, in so many ways. I remember my father giving me my first menorah (which I still have) and his teaching me how to light the candles, I was raised Jewish, but always knew half my family was Christian. Consequently, I’ve grown up being comfortable with Christian gatherings and celebrations, while maintaining a Jewish identity. I remember decorating the tree with my mother (she had infinetly more patience with tinsle than I did), believing in Santa (um, still do…), and yes, even the Easter Bunny (I’ll believe in anyone, or thing, that briings me chocolate). My partner, Jon, is from a Catholic background, and I bought him his first Christmas tree since living on his own, and decorate for both of us. (He gets presents for each night of Hanukkah, plus Christmas – he doesn’t complain.) Oddly, I’m more observant of Jewish festivals and kashrus than my Jewish relatives. In my mind, I make a distinction between celebrating Christmas, which is social, and observing, which entail the more religious aspects for Christians.