Whether from a fellow Jew or a non-Jew, I’m pretty sure the most common question asked of a convert to Judaism is: “Don’t you miss Christmas?”
So far, my personal answer to the query has been: “No. Not really. Once in a while… maybe.”
My more expanded answer leans mostly toward the negative. I emphatically do not miss the multiple lists, the endless tasks and errands or the sense of an existential deadline haunting my life for weeks on end. I have been more than happy to kiss goodbye the frenzy and exhaustion, all in the service of a single day’s harried theatrical performance. It has been a relief to no longer face the household cleanup and emotional letdown afterward.
There are elements I recall with fondness, of course. Almost all of them have their roots in pre-Christian winter festivals that marked the winter solstice — lights inside and outside, gathering with family and friends, decorating with evergreens, attending parties, particular music, gift giving.
But when I began my Jewish observance, I continued to light candles, have gatherings with friends and family, sing special songs and give presents during the darkest days of December. Those comforts and joys are now attached to Shabbat and Hanukkah, and they are even more satisfying.
And though I still love the intoxicating smell of evergreens, I do not miss trudging out on a freezing cold day to pick out a tree, or engaging in the prickly struggle to put it up and decorate it. I do not miss checking the water level and cleaning dry needles off the floor for days on end. I do not miss having to un-decorate and lug the desiccated tree out to the street for pickup. To satisfy my hunger for that pine scent, I now simply walk through my Upper West Side neighborhood during the month of December. I slow down and breathe deeply as I pass each Christmas tree stand on the sidewalks along the way. It’s a ritual that provides all of the sensory delight, and none of the drudgery.
What remains in the category of what I actually do miss about the season are select examples of what is termed “Christmas entertainment”: a couple of songs, like “Carol Of The Bells” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” And three movies.
Last year I started noticing advertisements for the 70th anniversary of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which had been my favorite Christmas movie for decades. I hadn’t watched it since well before my conversion, ten years ago. Suddenly, with surprise and a bit of Jewish guilt, I found I yearned to watch it again. I asked my husband whether he had ever seen it. He hadn’t. So I ordered a DVD copy. Then I thought of two other films I adored and missed watching regularly — the 1966 animated “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” and “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” a charming version of Dickens’ famous fable. So I ordered them as well.
When they all arrived, my husband and I had a lovely movie night, binging on my long lost favorites. I saved “It’s A Wonderful Life” for last. He was so moved by the end, it made me cry.
As I watched these three classic “Christmas” films with my now-Jewish sensibility, I had two significant revelations. The first one was that there is no mention of Jesus or the Nativity or of any specific aspects of Christian doctrine in any of them. I had never really thought about this omission before and was intrigued. It was probably the reason these films were my favorites in the first place. Christian belief had never had great appeal to me at any point in my life, in spite of the grim efforts I had occasionally made.
My second revelation came a couple of weeks later. As I was trying to decide the best place to store the DVDs, with the intention of bringing them out again each year, I began ruminating on the type of stories we return to regularly, as we do cyclically to those in the Torah. I started to analyze the content of each movie, the similarities and differences between them. Each is about a sinful person, though the aspect of sinfulness of each one differs. Scrooge is greedy and unfeeling. The Grinch is envious and hostile. George Bailey is ungrateful and despairing.
Minimal research confirms that Dickens’s original “A Christmas Carol” inspired both “The Grinch” and “It’s A Wonderful Life.” All three have social commentary embedded in them that warns about excess materialism and urges us to attend to our obligations to others. The author of each story delivers his critique on the social issues of his day by spotlighting a single flawed and flailing individual acting within an ethical framework. We are challenged to care about, and identify with, that imperfect individual.
Thanks to dramatic encounters with ghosts (Scrooge), a near-death experience (The Grinch), and a guardian angel (George Bailey), the protagonists face the truth about themselves and are shown the consequences of their choices, all in the urgent, condensed space of one night. By morning, each one has made a commitment to living a different life. All three movies end with expanded hearts and real tears, the evidence of repentance, and atonement.
In the wake of that particular insight, I recognized that those three stories are more about Yom Kippur than they are about Christmas. Who knew?
The drama of one single day of crisis, a forced encounter with one’s history and choices and effect on others, is the challenge we are expected to meet each Yom Kippur. Most years I feel I have truly and fully addressed it within those defined hours; a few years I have been too distracted to find meaning in the moment. In real life we aren’t attended by midnight ghosts or endlessly patient dogs or bumbling angels to drive the process for us. But now it seems I have discovered an opportunity to relive or re-examine the Yom Kippur experience at a different, if unusual, time of year.
And next time I am asked that one frequently asked-question, I might start responding, “No, I don’t miss Christmas, but I’ve repurposed a part of it to suit my Jewish life. Let me tell you about my favorite Yom Kippur movies…”
C.A. Blomquist is a writer, designer and arts educator who lives in Manhattan