Forget about “Chrismukka,” the hybrid holiday invented for intermarried couples. Consider the other December Dilemma, that of thousands of affiliated and even Orthodox Jews like me. Without a history of celebrating Christmas, and with no intention of celebrating it in the future, either, we get a warm and fuzzy feeling from the warm and fuzzy experience that is the modern Christmas season. How do we square this with the holiday’s residual religious significance and the traditional Jewish aversion to Christmas? Is it possible at all to enjoy Christmas — from afar — without suffering a big bout of Jewish guilt?
I haven’t always loved Christmas. Indeed, I actually can’t remember even one Christmas Day from my childhood, so it is a bit of a mystery when and why Christmas turned from a nothing into something of a fetish. By the time I was in college, however, I remember spending an evening merrily competing with my Orthodox friends over who knew more Christmas carols. When I moved to Israel in August 2000, I was sufficiently nostalgic to go hear carol singing outside the Jerusalem municipality (for obvious reasons, midnight mass in Bethlehem was out). While I never would have dreamed of going to a Christmas party in the Diaspora, I was more than happy to attend one in the Holy Land, and wasn’t even too offended by the Christmas tree in the corner. And now that I have returned to London, I absolutely love the city’s beautiful display of Christmas lights down Oxford Street and Regent Street; the lights in the windows of even the shabbiest of shops; the tacky animations outside some residential homes; the television specials; the way a month before Christmas, work is already winding down. Most of all, I like the cheesy Muzak in every shopping mall and subway station.
When I casually, on my blog, mentioned this Christmas crush a few weeks ago — expecting to be admonished by my pious readers — I was astonished to discover that I was not alone. One anonymous visitor wrote, “For what it’s worth, I’m a [very observant] Orthodox rabbi and I always loved the Christmas stuff.” An American woman revealed, “I love the coming of winter, too; I love the (originally pre-Christian, I suspect) traditions of bringing evergreen boughs indoors and lighting grand fires and feasting, and as a choral singer I love the fact that this is the time of year when people get together and sing, just for the pleasure of doing so!” And an Englishman who moved to Israel confessed: “In Israel, there is no spring or autumn. I miss the change of seasons. I miss the English November — the fireworks, the crisp and frosty air, and the emergence of the seasonal cheer of Christmas. Perhaps it’s time to pack up my bags and move back!” It was a strong outpouring of Jewish philo-Christmasism.
The problem, at least in my case, is that my fondness for Christmas is tinged with queasiness. First of all, there is a deeply ingrained anti-Christmas tradition in the Jewish community, because of both its religious significance as the birthday of Jesus and the pogroms the community has historically suffered around Christmastime. Real or imagined, I feel this communal pressure. Second, there is a more modern fear that Jews and intermarried couples who allow even a little bit of Christmas into their homes risk confusing their children. While I believe that admiring Christmas from afar is not the same as actually celebrating it, I would not like to lower this communal boundary in any way.
Why is Christmas still a favorite? Maybe comedian Ben Stein had it right. “I have always felt that no one loved Christmas like the Jews,” he once wrote. “For a Jew to be in America at Christmas, with all the love in the air, after two millennia of being hunted and killed at Christian holidays, is pure bliss, and I believe we feel it keenly.”
There is also something to be said for the side benefits of a festival that doesn’t require a month of cooking and cleaning beforehand (at least not by us), is not a fast and does not require hours of sitting in synagogue. Indeed, there is a case to be made that one of the reasons we enjoy Christmas so much is that it is relatively carefree, especially compared with our own holidays, which are either beset with ritual minutiae (Passover), ruined by their wildness (Simchat Torah, and increasingly, Purim) or largely about guilt (High Holy Days). Given the choice between the seven weeks of Sefira and the three weeks before Tisha B’Av — both periods of severe restrictions on celebrations — and the Christmas season….
Perhaps nothing demonstrates just how desperately Jews want a simple, “feel-good” festival of their own as does the success of Hanukkah, after it was “Christmas-ized.” And there’s a lesson in that for the entire community. Meanwhile, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas — so, Jews and gentiles alike, sit back and enjoy one of the most wonderful times of the year.
Miriam Shaviv is the former literary editor of the Jerusalem Post. She blogs at http://bloghd.blogspot.com.