(I have always wanted to write about this, but have never had a place to do so. I hope you will indulge me here, at PlanetPOV. It feels safe here!)
Many non-Jews don’t understand why Jews don’t celebrate Christmas, and are surprised by that fact. I’m always surprised that they are surprised! I usually have to remind them that Christmas is a Christian holiday, which is so ironic to me—reminding Christians of the essence of Christmas! That tells you a lot about what has happened to Christmas in this country, when so many Christians see the day as secular, as about Santa Clause. But as we realize, Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, and Jews do not acknowledge Jesus as the savior. No, not even as an actual person.
As a child, Christmas was a much more difficult time. Like most Jewish kids, Christmas was a holiday to be seen as an outsider, with envy. I mean, come on! The decorations, the presents, the music! And the fact that the rest of the entire world celebrates it. And as a kid, I was unaware that most of the world did not celebrate Christmas. Who knew about Asians, the Muslim world, let alone the more exotic worlds of Hinduism, Animism, Pantheism and all the other wonderful varieties of religious experience? Nope, to me, as an American kid, the whole world, except for my tiny part, was Christian.
Sure, we had Hannukkah, but let’s face it—as Lewis Black pointed out in one of his routines– Hannukkah sucked. The music is limited, and the decorations? Fahgettaboutit! What, a few lousy dreidl’s and a menorah? No thanks. And those “eight days of gifts?” Right. Eight days of socks, pencil cases and sweaters. Again, as Lewis Black says: It’s a back-to-school holiday! I wanted the tree, the ornaments, the LIGHTS!!! I wanted my house covered in those multicolored bulbs wasting as much electricity as possible.
Hell, I wanted a fireplace too.
And The Lights!
This was so unfair. Hannukkah is the Festival of Lights for Chrissakes and we don’t even get to have any? How did that happen, that Christians get the lights? And let’s not forget the wreaths! God, I always wanted a wreath. (As an adult, I even asked my rabbi if I could hang a wreath—not a Christmas wreath, just a generic one, in the Spring, say. I got a resounding “ No.” And why not? “Because, it has the appearance of Christianity.”)
Now, just to clarify, I never wanted to be Christian, and I had an almost pathological fear of crosses. An actual Crucifix terrified me as a kid; to an outsider, it just looked like a guy being tortured—without the pathos of the story to move me. I wasn’t in danger of converting, I just wanted Christmas.
As a kid going to public school in the 1950’s and 60’s I had plenty of opportunity to learn all about the traditions of Christmas, especially during the yearly school Christmas Pageant. That’s where I learned all the carols and about the Nativity. I can still remember singing, “Silent Night” and thinking the words were:
“Si-o-lent Night. Ho-ho ly Night.
All is calm, all is bright.
Ron, yonvir-er –gin, mother an chile.
Holey infanso ten derand mile.”
Had no clue what that song was about! But I knew about Baby Jesus, the Wise Guys, and the Star. And I loved The Little Drummer Boy. In fact, to this day, I adore Christmas carols.
So, anyway, I got over it. Made my peace with Christmas. Until I had my own child. And then I became every bit as wary of its influence on my child as my parents were. Only during that period of my life, I was in my observantly Jewish phase: Went to synagogue regularly, and enrolled our son in a Jewish elementary school. (That was a mistake, but that’s another story.) There would be absolutely no Christmas influences in our house. On Christmas, we would do what American Jews traditionally do for Christmas—go out to a Chinese restaurant and a movie. And Hannukkah became a big production.
Fast forward twenty-odd years since then. I am still a Jew, but no longer observant. I have remarried to a Chinese man, so we still have no Christmas. And I’m fine with that, except I still feel like an outsider. It’s funny, only on Christmas do I feel this way—kind of wistful, and longing. I have never really felt a sense of Otherness in America. But I want to tell you something: On our son’s thirteenth birthday, we took him to Israel, to visit his relatives. (His father’s family has lived in Jerusalem literally forever. I mean, since it was Canaan.) When I got off the El Al flight and landed at Lod Airport in Tel Aviv, something amazing happened. I relaxed to a degree I had never relaxed before. I was among only Jews. The cops were Jews, the robbers were Jews. For the first time, I was in the majority, and it felt different—a new feeling. That feeling lasted exactly two days, until I went to a district of Orthodox (fundamentalist) Jews called Mea Sha’arim.
It was there, on those streets where the men walked on the other side of the street, so as not to come into contact with me. To not even look at me. I was not Jewish to them, but an outsider. Not Jewish enough!
This whole business of being an outsider/insider is so fluid. Here’s another example: When I met my first husband, he asked what my background was, and I told him, “Russian.” My family was Russian. “No,” he said, “your family was Jewish. Your family may have been from Russia, but to the Russians they were Jews, not Russian.” Well, that is true and it kind of hit me–My family and every other Jewish family were always outsiders, no matter where they lived. To make it even further complicated, when I met my second husband, to him, as Chinese, I am white. But ask any southerner from Alabama or Mississippi, and they will tell you I’m not white, but a Jew. Go figure. Plus, now I am an outsider again! You can’t imagine what a tall redhead must look like among a crowd of petite Chinese. But I relish our differences.
I have always loved the religious traditions of others. I went back to school in my late forties and got an advanced degree in Religious Studies. I have studied for years with a rabbi who himself was summoned by the Dalai Lama to come to Dharmsala and help the Tibetans maintain their traditions. I love it all. It has been the most important journey of my being. And I have learned that there is a difference between being an outsider and being The Other. We are all, to some degree or other, outsiders, but none of us are truly “the Other.” Except for those who insist upon it. They are the ones who are lonely.