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Christmas is a complicated matter for American Jews. As Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, explained by phone to the Forward: “Christmas becomes the boundary between Jews and Christians over time. This is a moment of publicly declaring, ‘Are you in or are you out?’” For me, my family’s Christmas celebration is not about making a choice — accepting Christmas or rejecting Judaism; rather, it’s an embrace of the spirit of giving, the enchantment of Santa, the coming together of family and the celebration of what has become a joyous national secular holiday. Ours is a particularly American story, rooted in the history of immigration, assimilation and popular culture.
In 19th-century Europe, upper- and middle-class German Jews celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday devoid of religious symbolism; for them, it was about gathering with family around the tree, decorating the home and singing carols. When this wave of Jews came to America in the mid-19th century, they brought their way of life with them. In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas an American national holiday, and over time, many Jews, especially those from Germany, continued their Christmas celebrations, eager to assimilate into American culture. And that culture included a de-Christianized Christmas.
My ancestors were part of this melting pot. My mother’s family left Germany for America, landing in Baltimore in the 1840s with their secular holiday traditions and desire to create a new life. A generation later, three great-great uncles, Reuben, Benjamin and Isaac Goldsmith, moved to New York City, where they founded Goldsmith Bros. in 1886, a prominent stationery store in Lower Manhattan that became one of the largest in the country.
Their story also reflects the histories of the far more powerful and influential Jewish families profiled in Stephen Birmingham’s seminal “Our Crowd.” The Seligmans, Lehmans, Strauses, Sachs, Guggenheims and other great Jewish families of New York were the arbiters of what it meant to be culturally Jewish. At the core of this, Birmingham explains, was family: It “had become the crowd’s most powerful religion. It was why family holidays and anniversaries had become far more important than the Sabbath or the Jewish holy days.”
My maternal grandmother, Sally Anne Rudolph (yes, Rudolph), grew up in this family-oriented Christmas tradition. When she met her husband, Charlie Brand, before World War II, they exchanged Christmas gifts before they married — before he even returned home from the war. When they had their first daughter (my mother), they named her Virginia after “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus,” the famous editorial that appeared in The New York Sun in 1897 and has since become a beloved fixture of the American Christmas story.