A note from the editors: Today, Cognoscenti offers two perspectives on the Christmas season from two contributors who don't celebrate — but can't escape — the holiday. Don't miss Miriam Stein's essay, Making Peace With Christmas.
Every fall, someone gets politically correct about Christmas. This year, it was the Marshfield School Committee, which changed the term “Christmas vacation” to “holiday break.” Some protested, and I get it. I’m Jewish, and I wonder at the necessity of a “holiday break.”
I adore this season. I have fun opening cards that say “Merry Christmas” and seeing public Christmas trees that don’t have Hanukkah menorahs next to them. I love Christmas parties and secret Santas and caroling.
When I was a child...I bought a tiny tree at the drugstore and put it on my nightstand, which didn’t make my rabbi father happy.
Sometimes, I think of myself, with regret, as a negative Jew. I don’t observe my religion scrupulously. I enjoy some of the Jewish holiday rituals, but I also enjoy the Christmas season, because there are so many things I don’t have to do. I don’t have to buy a tree and then haul it away after the holiday. I don’t have to trim it. I don’t have to buy a thousand dollars’ worth of presents or send a hundred dollars’ worth of cards. But I still get to revel in the lights and the music and other people’s lovely decorations.
When I was a child, the holiday season made me sad. I wanted to be part of the Christmas activities that were happening around me. I bought a tiny tree at the drugstore and put it on my nightstand, which didn’t make my rabbi father happy. I learned to play “Silent Night” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” on the piano. (I chose those two because their first verses didn’t mention “Jesus” or “Christ.”) I begged my Christian friends to invite me to help them decorate their trees.
“But why?” I hear you cry. “You have Hanukkah!”
Hanukkah probably consoles many Jewish kids who pine for Santa. But if it weren’t close to Christmas, Hanukkah wouldn’t be a significant Jewish holiday. That’s a shame, since it’s a happy holiday commemorating one of the few battles that the ancient Jews actually won. The story didn’t even make it into the Jewish or Protestant versions of the Bible. It’s also a shame, because few of the major Jewish holidays are fun. We fast and meditate all day on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Passover, which comes in the spring, is a very major holiday and should be a very happy one because it commemorates the Jews’ release from slavery in Egypt. But some of the fun is dampened by dietary restrictions: There’s a long list of grain products, from brownies to beer, that you’re not supposed to eat for a week.
Hanukkah is called a “minor holiday” in Jewish tradition. It lasts for eight days, which can start anywhere from late November to late December, because the date is determined by the Jewish lunar calendar. This year, Hanukkah happens to come right before Christmas, which makes timing easier for people who want to send presents to interfaith couples. Jews light candles every night, and kids play games and get presents and eat potato pancakes. It never occurred to me to stay home from school or work for any part of it, until I worked in a community that probably didn’t have 10 Jews. “How many days are you taking off for Hanukkah?” my boss asked me kindly. “I don’t take off for Hanukkah,” I replied. “Funny,” he said, “Jane Silverman who used to work here took two days.” Clever Jane.
Christmas may be someone else’s holiday, but I revel in the songs and the parties and the lights, all while being spared any of the expense or decorating obligations.
That’s why I don’t care whether public trees are called Christmas trees, despite the absence of evergreens from the Nativity story. And it’s why I cringe when I see those public menorahs, and when I hear references to “Christmas-and-Hanukkah,” as though it were one word.
A Jewish friend told me last year that she was shocked to receive a card that said “Merry Christmas,” instead of “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays.” I suggested she enjoy it and find a “Happy Passover” card to send in April.
Meanwhile, I’m having fun having it all. Christmas may be someone else’s holiday, but I revel in the songs and the parties and the lights, all while being spared any of the expense or decorating obligations. And I can also celebrate Hanukkah, with its candles and games and delicious food. So deck the halls and pass the latkes, and may whatever you celebrate be merry and bright.