It’s hard to be a Jew on Christmas
My friends won’t let me join in any games.
And I can’t sing Christmas songs
Or decorate a Christmas tree
Or leave water out for Rudolph
’cause there’s something wrong with me!
I’m a Jew, a lonely Jew, on Christmas.
— Kyle Broflovski, “South Park”
Like many Jews, I grew up hating Christmas: the songs, the TV specials, the reindeer and sleighs, not to mention huge stockings bursting with toys. (That myth of eight nights of presents was no consolation — I’d be lucky to be getting books and socks, the two worst gifts for a young boy, by the final night.) It’s been many years since those lonely December nights, but it seems that even in today’s multicultural America, there’s no time more marginalizing for Jews than Christmas.
Being not just any American Jewish boy but a suburban, angst-ridden, intellectually minded one, I created my own myths of the horrors of Christmas, stories that lasted well into adulthood. Egged on by my Jewish day-school teachers, I scoffed at the commercialization of it all (this was before I lived in Israel and encountered the mivtza anak shel Pesach! at the Jerusalem mall). I noted how Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer had nothing to do with Jesus. And I hated, hated, hated Santa Claus.
As I’ve grown older, some of the loathing has passed, but plenty more has remained. I get depressed every holiday season, and the endless C-major holiday songs (often written by Jews) make it worse. During my Orthodox period, I looked down at those Jews who, copying the goyim, gave presents on Hanukkah, and I transformed that holiday of zealotry and resistance into a milquetoast winter festival of “religious freedom.” And to be perfectly honest, I still hate Santa Claus — less for his skipping over my house each year than for what he teaches about religion, to children and adults alike: that it’s about lies, fairy tales and myths; that the reason to be good is to get a reward; that you better not shout, because somebody’s making a list (and checking it twice).
But this year, oddly, I’ve felt less existential dread as the holiday season approaches. Maybe it’s because I’ll be on silent meditation retreat during the Silent Night, hiding out in a Buddhist refuge for the worst of the holiday onslaught. Maybe it’s because Hanukkah came early this year, and my rice cooker and iPod gizmos have already been broken in. But mostly I think it’s because of paganism.
As I’ve written about before in these pages, “paganism” is often seen as the great enemy of Judaism. Originally a Christian Latin term referring to rural people and their earthy, non-Christian religions, it has migrated into the Jewish world as a bugaboo of rationalists, strict monotheists and anyone else who doesn’t like to dance in synagogue. Although Jewish law speaks only of avodah zara — foreign worship — all sorts of things are today derided as “pagan,” from drum circles to the lulav and etrog. Sometimes these things are too ecstatic, sometimes too earthy, sometimes too weird and sometimes just too feminine. This is one of the advantages of importing another religion’s terminology: We can twist it to mean whatever we want.
What’s often labeled as “pagan,” however, actually has a place of pride in Jewish religion. Is the Zohar “pagan” because it speaks of the Divine feminine, residing in the earth, and uniting erotically with the masculine godhead in the sky? Are the prayers for rain and dew “pagan” because they connect God to the cycle of the seasons? Is Tu B’Shevat? Maybe the Talmud is pagan, since its rabbis are magicians and miracle workers, and since some of them consult with witches.
Even the menorah itself, symbol of the Temple and of Hanukkah, may be linked both to plants indigenous to the Land of Israel and to sexual symbolism also used to denote the tree of Asherah. Is the menorah pagan? How about the coincidence that we have our Festival of Lights at the darkest time of the year? Paganism again?
Obviously, “paganism” is more a label than a reality. It represents something deeply bad for many Jews: something dark, sexual, primal and primitive. Something that precedes the ethical, something animalistic. Western monotheistic religion has always been suspicious of our primitive natures, inventing and projecting onto others orgiastic bloodlusts of carnality and sacrifice. (Most of the worst stories of the Canaanites, for example, have not been borne out by archaeological evidence.) Some of this is for good reason: The primitive is indeed pre-ethical. But some of it is just fear — of the body, of its desires and of the holiness that our traditions, some older than others, ascribe to sexuality, food and the force of life in general.
In the recent film (and much better book) “The Golden Compass,” this erotic life-force is called “Dust,” and that film’s church seeks to deny its existence, even to the point of effectively castrating children so that they never fall into sin. (This is just the beginning of the trilogy’s heresy; stay tuned for the death of God in book three.) Thankfully, the Jewish tradition is a bit less body-phobic than some others. But still, ask yourself what’s really so troubling about “paganism,” beneath the rhetoric and posturing. What is it that makes us uncomfortable? Is it the fact that this power, whatever it is, is real? That it can be experienced and not just read about? Is it that, in such liminal moments, ordinary distinctions lose their meaning? Is it just border anxiety? Loss of identity? Plain-old fear?
For all these reasons and more, both Judaism and Christianity have long repressed feminine-oriented, earth-based, or overtly sexual symbolism or ritual practice. And yet, remarkably, it has endured. It might be as simple as eating an egg on Passover or hanging a circular wreath in December, and its original context is largely forgotten, but there’s something noble, I think, about how paganism has reverse-colonized and even largely displaced the mainstream religions that sought to stomp it out.
For example, while some of these may be a bit obvious, just consider this month’s American “holiday” observances:
The Christmas tree . Jeremiah 10:3-4: “For the customs of the people are vain: for one cuts a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” Sound familiar? In Europe, earth-based religionists have cut down boughs of evergreens in winter for millennia as a consolation in wintertime, and a reminder that life will return. The third-century church leader Tertullian even complained that Christians were following suit. In our culture, the “tree of life” was a symbol of the Divine feminine (particularly the goddess Asherah) as well as the Torah, and trees were widespread objects of “pagan” veneration, as numerous prohibitive halachot attest. Of course, the reason those laws are in place is that less normatively pious Jews were doing these practices. And they did so because these rituals work, because they speak to something deep within the human soul — to basic, primal archetypes of mother and father, earth and sky. Far deeper than the myths laid atop them. Wreaths and holly . Circles are ubiquitous symbols of femininity in the Kabbalah, in European earth-based religions and in many other systems, as well. They represent cyclicality, in contrast to “masculine,” historical, linear time: the return of the seasons, the cyclical nature of sacred time (as described most poignantly in the book of Ecclesiastes) and, in the Kabbalah, as an aperture capable of enclosing the masculine line. Holly, on the other hand, is usually a symbol of masculinity and was the sacred plant of the Saturnalia, the Roman winter festival. Uniting the two is… well, you get the picture. Santa Claus . St. Nicholas was a fourth-century bishop in what is now Turkey. Unlike in the 1823 poem, which is the most important source for St. Nick’s contemporary image, he is not traditionally depicted as having had a bushy white beard, a funny red suit or a sleigh and reindeer. Indeed, given that there are not a whole lot of reindeer in Turkey, it seems probable that the imagery originally was associated with the Finnish joulupukki, a typically ornery pagan figure whose iconography is associated with goats and a long, white beard, or with Thor, who lives in the north, rides in a chariot drawn by two white goats and comes down chimneys into his native element of fire. Of course, we don’t have any such nonsense in Judaism. Who ever heard of a Jewish figure who rides in a chariot in the sky and visits all the homes of the faithful in a single night? Other than Elijah, that is. Right. December 25 . If the gospels’ story is true, Jesus was born during Sukkot, Passover or Shavuot. None of these is in December, a rainy, cold month in Jerusalem. Rather, the dating of Christmas was meant to coincide with, and thus displace, winter solstice festivals. No wonder the tree (and the house, and the yard) is bedecked with lights; this is a basic human yearning, echoed in the lights of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Diwali.
My purpose in all this is not to demean Christmas but to celebrate it. As an American Jew, I’ve always felt alienated by this holiday. But that alienation has lifted as I’ve come to understand what’s really being celebrated, beneath the nativity story and the rampant consumerism: the darkening of our days, the longed-for return of light and the earth-based symbolism of the solstice. This is the goddess in drag, hiding, as She always does, right in plain view.
Unlike the story of Jesus, these are symbols we all have in common, because they predate the rationales and rules of conventional religion. They’re also much more meaningful than the blandness of the “holiday season.” Indeed, for many of us, these universal, feel-it-in-your-kishkes symbols are more potent than narratives of anti-Hellenistic resistance and dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. As scholar and author Rabbi Jill Hammer once told me, the growing of light is something you can feel in your body, rather than read about in a book.
And finally, because these are symbols we have in common, they help lessen my own lingering fear of Christianity. Let’s face it: Many, if not most, American Jews grow up scarred by Christianity, mistrustful of it, and actively taught to fear, scorn and otherwise shun it. Some of this is a reasonable response to missionary activity, and to the need of a persecuted minority to survive. But it’s made us neurotic. As Israel Zangwill is reported to have said, “two thousand years of Christian love have made us very nervous.”
Enough nervousness. I understand that neither Jews nor Christians will welcome my pagan interpretation of their winter holidays. But imagine if we did. Imagine if we saw our varying traditions as different responses to the same mystery, and as elaborations of the same basic human needs. Might we reconfigure our senses of self and other, of holy and not-holy, of enemy and friend? I’m not suggesting a bland universalism; I’m arguing for a psychologically mature, intellectually honest and fearlessly embodied post-religious consciousness of guts, earth and sex, right alongside with, and mutually enriching, a serious ethical commitment. Such a view may be a lot to hang on a few trees and candles, but it has brought me some cheer this holiday season.