Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

If you read this blog with any regularity or know me in person, you know that I am, & have always been, Jewish. But I was raised in a household with a father who was what I now refer to as “secularly Christian” – we “celebrated” Christmas and Easter, but never went to church. We put up a tree but did not speak of Jesus. We colored eggs but did not discuss resurrections.

As an adult, I now know that my mother was deeply uncomfortable with these celebrations, that she only took part in them because they were important to my father, because they were the traditions he knew & loved. Even though there was never any pressure to bring Christianity into our secular celebration of these holidays, they were foreign & unfamiliar to my mom, who came from a two-Jewish-parent household & had never before trimmed a tree or set up an egg hunt.

So when my father died, we stopped celebrating these holidays. My mom carried them on for about a year after his death, for my sake (thanks, Mom!), & then we were done. We celebrated Christmas again only once, when we hosted a Catholic foreign exchange student from Peru & wanted him to feel at home, but the sight of two Jewish girls tying a wobbly tree to their window pane with fishing wire confirmed that this was not a holiday we were meant to celebrate.

I’m 25 now. And you know what? I miss Christmas. I spent two holiday seasons working in an Italian bakery during high school, two more working retail during college, & the feeling never goes away – I love Christmas. I love the frenzy of shoppers, the festivity of trees & stockings & snowmen. I love writing out cards, having an excuse to tell people I love them & to show them with gifts. I love movies like “Home Alone” and “Love Actually,” albums like N*Sync’s “Home for the Holidays” and Kyla Roma’s indie Christmas compilation.

Christmas is vanilla & pine & gingerbread. It's good food, warm blankets, bright lights, cold snow. It's friends & family. Christmas, to me, is comfort & joy. Oh - & love, too. Can't forget love.

I moved to Washington, D.C., to work for a Jewish organization, & I’m heading into my third year here. Since beginning this job, I have become infinitely more connected to my Jewish identity, which doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve become more religious but does mean I’ve become increasingly spiritual & cognizant of tradition. I like becoming “culturally Jewish,” if you will, & feeling connected to my friends & coworkers through the unbreakable bond of a common history & tradition.

I grew up differently than many of them, though. I was the only Jewish student at my 2,000-student high school in suburban Ohio. My family exchanges gifts at Thanksgiving, not at Chanukah or Christmas, because we’re half Jewish, half Christian. I’ve never been to Israel & I’ve never kept kosher & I didn’t know the names of half the Jewish holidays until I moved here & met people who were so observantly Jewish that their parents forbid them from trick-or-treating. I am, in some ways, the perfect microcosm of pseudo-secular America - a lover & avid celebrator of holidays, often without regards to their origins. I am guilty of watching fireworks without remembering that they represent our freedom; yearly, I dress up in witty costumes without recognizing the Pagan origins of doing so.

I recently read through this blog post from a year ago, “Ghosts of Christmas Past,” by Andi Rosenthal, a Jewish convert who can’t bring herself to throw out her ornaments because she still feels emotionally tied to her pre-Judaism Christmases. The post itself didn’t resonate with me much; what did was one of the comments left just yesterday by a reader :

It is interesting to me (and OF COURSE, I understand the history behind it) of the hyper "you must choose....Christmas or Chanukah" split sentiment among Jews, as well as converts...while this doesn't exist for St. Valentine's Day. Let me write that a bit more correctly..."SAINT Valentine's Day." As in, Roman Catholic...as in, Christian. My same Jewish female friends who go into a frenzy over Xmas decor at the local school and malls will turn around and threaten certain death of their boyfriends/fiancees/husbands if a romantic Valentine's Day dinner and presents aren't lined up...or have NO PROBLEM getting good and tipsy on SAINT Patrick's Day (wearing green & shamrocks and the whole nine).

I know it's a bit controversial, but there IS a big difference between Jesus (which is Christian) and a tree with ornaments, lights, and presents (which is of pagan origin). I wish converts didn't feel the struggle as much or as harshly...or that it's some litmus test of their dedication to the Jewish faith. Just my thoughts. No mean to offend...

It’s crudely expressed, sure, but the sentiment has made me think. Do I need to choose? Do I have to give up Christmas? I miss it, I love it, & I want to celebrate it again.

Within the next few years, I hope to settle into a home, an apartment of my own back in the ‘burbs. When I do, must I feel obligated to continue my Christmas-free existence, looking longingly at the celebrations & decorations of the gentiles I know? Am I any less Jewish if I do? Have I ever been any less Jewish - for wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day or for giving out Valentine’s on February 14th? Of course not. I don’t want Jesus – I just want Christmas. And while I’m sure that will offend quite a few folks out there, Christians & Jews alike, I don’t know whether that’s enough to keep me from someday bringing a little bit of Christmas back into my life.

11 comments:

Brandi said...

Thank you for entering my giveaway! You are a GREAT person, I can tell! I always recommend that people just start learning about this (vegetarian) lifestyle. There is sooo much to learn and the more you learn the better you can feel about your choices because everything we do impacts someone or something else...that is something I have learned on my journey. Lemme know if you ever have questions! Or if you want some suggested literature! Good luck on your journey and in the contest!

Rachel said...

I love this post, and I'll be sending it to my many friends and family members who celebrate Christmakkuh. I don't believe you should have to pick either, and I don't at all associate Christmas with Jesus. We're mostly Christian in my house, but there's a little bit of Jewish too, so we have a menorah too. Btw, I sent holiday cards out last year that says "Here's to Christmakkuh, eating latkes and drinking eggnog, and celebrating two kinds of guilt." Surprising how similar Jewish and Catholic families are when it comes to food and guilt. Great post :)

shine said...

I think this is really great. I see no reason that you should have to choose between being Jewish and celebrating Christmas.

Do your own thing and make your own traditions.

And this is coming from someone who doesn't even LIKE Christmas. This was a beautiful post and I'm really glad that you wrote it.

Dena said...

I'm sure I'll offend a few people myself, but in recent decades Christmas hasn't been associated with any religion. Though most Americans may call themselves Christians, I truly don't believe they've been very convincing. I love Christmas if only for the one chance I have each year to shower my daughter with gifts or to watch neighbors come together in the spirit of togetherness. Everyone deserves Christmas as it's becoming a tradition exclusively tailored for each family; how they do it, what foods they choose to eat, how they decide when to open gifts, big tree/little tree, celebrate with friends or family or (if you're lucky), BOTH.

It's all in how one celebrates the spirit.

Sammi said...

As you are aware, I don't consider myself a religious person at all. There isn't much I believe. But, I love Christmas so much (no, not a white Christmas ;) )!! I love the family time & buying presents for other people. I love Christmas lights & Santa. I love my mom's antique Nativity Scene (where we hijack & hide Jesus from)& love the angel on our tree. Even though there is a "true" meaning of Christmas, it isn't my "true" meaning. My true meaning is being with my loved ones, watching them open gifts, eating a big meal, decorating the tree. I think you could have your menorah & your tree too. They are both huge parts of your life and just because someone else has their own idea of Christmas, that doesn't have to be yours.

xoxo

CPO said...

Great post. Christmas, whether we like it or not, has become part of American civil religion. The question isn't whether you celebrate Christmas, but how you choose to respond to the reality of the day. I'm much less anti-Christmas than I once was in-part because the day for me now is synonymous with community service. I look forward to it. I don't begrudge anyone how they will celebrate Christmas. The only thing that gets my hackles up is when Chanukkah is equated to Christmas which does justice to neither holiday (from the standpoint of religion).

Jackie said...

the comment brings up very interesting points!

Rachel said...

This is a beautiful post--and I think that taking the chance to spread some joy and let people know you love them is never wrong.

LiLu said...

I vote for Christmakkuh as well! And I love, love love this post. We all have to find our own comfort zones... and for me, Christmas has not a thing to do with faith, and everything to do with enjoying the company of good family and friends. And maybe cookies. Just a little bit cookies.

spleeness said...

I can really relate to your words here, having also grown up with a Jewish mom and a Catholic dad. I identify culturally with being Jewish but I love looking at the lights and treasure the spirit of togetherness. Very moving post. (Somehow I thought I commented before from my phone but I guess not b/c I don't see it here!)

Another David said...

It's funny, we kind of switched places. I was the only Jew (and a decently observant one) in a high school of well over 2000 in PG County, then went off the Ohio State for college. Having returned to the area, I find myself becoming less religious and more secular. I went to my first Christmas party this year :)

I was having this exact same discussion the other day. The conclusion my friend and I came to was that Jews don't celebrate Christmas because we have Hannukah, but we borrow Valentine's and St. Patrick's because we don't have a substitute for those. If Tu B'shvat and Purim were a bigger deal, I'm sure there'd be more lines drawn in more sand. Along the same vein, we also noticed that you have to choose between Passover and Easter. I've never seen anyone do both.

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