The Lost Spirit of Christmas Past

The Continental Divide

By Eric Frey

Published December 01, 2006, issue of December 01, 2006.
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As a young boy growing up in officially Catholic Austria, December was a time to realize what it meant to be Jewish. In the birthplace of “Silent Night,” Christmas was a deeply religious experience from which even non-religious Jews consciously excluded themselves.

Christmas shopping was a subdued affair, while advent wreaths and nativity scenes abounded. When, with a mixture of pride and regret, I told kids in my class that we don’t celebrate Christmas at home, they were shocked, and refused to listen to my attempts to explain. I don’t remember even one of my teachers ever mentioning Hanukkah in class.

Later I found out that there was once a time when Weihnachten, as Christmas is called in German, was part of the Jewish experience in Germany and Austria. To get an idea of the degree of Jewish assimilation before 1938, consider this entry in a book of pre-Holocaust Jewish jokes: “Daddy, do the goyim celebrate Christmas as well?” And decades before Americans came up with the term “Chrismukkah” to describe the mixture of Christian and Jewish holiday kitsch, Austrian Jews coined the equivalent, “Weihnukka.”

After the Shoah, of course, that all changed. In postwar Austria, to be a Jew meant not celebrating Christmas.

But the holiday is changing here, and so is the way Austrian Jews feel about that season. Once deeply devout Austria is become an increasingly secular place. The symbols of Christmas are now the brightly lit showcase and the shopping street, not the crèche and the ass.

Nowhere is the Americanization of society more visible than in the last month of the year. The old religious German-language carols are gone, as radio stations and store loudspeakers play “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and most of all, George Michael’s “Last Christmas,” a song that has as much to do with the birth of Jesus as with nuclear physics.

Sure, commentators lament the fact that Austrian kids no longer send their letters to the traditional Baby Jesus, instead ordering their Play Stations directly from that alien Santa Claus, but they are fighting a losing battle. You can walk through Vienna in December without encountering a single scene of Jesus, Mary, Joseph or the three Wise Men. Santa Claus and little reindeer Rudolph are ubiquitous, but neither of them particularly offends Jewish sensibilities.

Even though only a few thousand Jews live in Austria, the general public has by now heard about the Jewish festival of light. When my wife asked our daughter’s schoolteacher whether she could come to school and tell the class about Hanukkah, the offer was gladly accepted. A few years ago, members of Chabad started to light Hanukkah candles in front of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the symbol of Austrian Catholicism. Surrounded by charity stands selling hot wine and punch, it turned out to be just another downtown spectacle during the busy holiday season.

Christmas is no longer such an alien, difficult experience as it was once — but the holiday also no longer helps build up one’s Jewish identity. My children feel as comfortable at Vienna city hall’s famous Christmas market, which they visit with their Jewish friends, as at the Jewish street festival that is held in Vienna each June.

Christmas Eve, when public life comes to a standstill as everybody retreats to their homes to light Christmas trees and exchange presents, can still be an awkward moment for most Jews. However, a growing number of movie theaters and restaurants stay open that evening and the annual Christmas Eve “Casino Night” at the Jewish Student Association has become a popular place for non-Jewish peers who want to escape their dreaded family dinner.

The rampant secularization of Austrian society means that a different religion poses few problems for most young people. What many of them, as refugees from the Catholic Church, can understand least is why we Jews care so much about faith and religious rites all.

There are still formidable obstacles to assimilation in a country where Jews were humiliated, expelled and killed only two generations ago, but it is no longer as difficult as it once was. That brings the dilemma of Jewish existence closer to the American experience, where tolerance and intermarriage are relentlessly chipping away at the Jewish identity. If you choose not to be religious, the borders between Jewish and non-Jewish life are fading.

So with “Jingle Bells” blaring in beautifully decorated shopping malls, I cherish the fact that I no longer need to exclude myself from the holiday spirit. But then again, I long for the days when Christmas created a clear dividing line between me and my peers and let me know why I was different. My children have to live without the clarity of that experience.

Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.

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