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Posts Tagged ‘Jews celebrating Christmas’

The angst was palpable.  A question on the CCAR Facebook page asked if we rabbis were disturbed by the posting of pictures showing members of our congregations with Christmas trees or Santa Clause.  I was guilty of the knee jerk reaction “yes, it bothers me.”  Over the next few days there were dozens of responses exploring various aspects of the reality of Jews celebrating Christmas, a look at the hows and whys.  Theories abounded about what we could/should do, and about what it all means.  The only clear conclusion is how much we do not know about the motives of Jews appearing in Christmas related photos and whether it is a marker of their true Jewish commitment.

In truth, I am not sure why I had that immediate negative knee jerk reaction.  It might be related to Christmas as the yearly focal point of Christian hubris in America.  I, like many Jews, am tired of the annual complaints by some Christians about the “War on Christmas.”  I am tired of the assumption by most Americans that everyone celebrates Christmas.  I am tired of the tokenism shown in public schools by the inclusion of one lame Chanukah song along with all of the beautiful Christmas music.  Which leads to another reason I might resent Christmas.  As a music lover, I have to admit that Christmas music is generally lovely, while most of the music created for Chanukah is, to put it bluntly, awful.  Perhaps most of all, I am tired of explaining that Chanukah is a minor holiday that represents no core theological value of Judaism.  Teaching about Chanukah teaches very little about the beauty of Jewish thought, texts, spiritual practice or the power of the Biblically mandated chagim.  The proximity to Christmas elevates the importance of Chanukah and I do resent that.

But, if I am honest with myself, I have had a perfectly pleasurable personal relationship with Christmas my entire life.  As a little boy spending much of my childhood in Fairmont, W. VA, I learned every Christmas carol and enjoyed singing them.  I was cast as Joseph in my Kindergarten Christmas play because I was the only student who could sing a Hebrew song to Mary on the way to Bethlehem.  My parents were close friends with a Baptist minister.  We would go trim their tree every year.  I sat on Santa’s lap in the local department store.  I went caroling with my Christian friends.  As an adult I dressed up as Santa Clause for my wife’s pre-school.  Indeed, I remember having a rather clever answer when one 4 year old asked why they could not hear my reindeer on the roof of the school.  I said it was because they were all wearing socks.  During the years my children were in grade school I went to our neighbor’s Christmas party and caroled with them.  Everyone got a kick out of the fact I knew the words to all the songs better than any of the Christians.

My parents, however, provided a very committed Jewish home.  My dad was a survivor and there was little doubt about our involvement in synagogue or any doubt at all about our Jewish identity.  Christmas did not enter our home.  Celebrating Christmas was what we did to share a fun time with non Jewish friends at their homes.  It had zero religious meaning for us.

A few years ago, my daughter Carrie, who is married to a non-Jew, demonstrated an updated version of this.  She hosted a Christmas gathering for her husband’s family.  His family is not religious.  Christmas for them is all about getting together as a family.  The reason my daughter hosted was hat her husband’s parents live in Cape Cod and his brother’s family live in West Virginia.  Living in Philadelphia at the time, Carrie realized her house was the mid point.  She made a point of telling me, “Don’t worry Dad, we are not having a Christmas tree or anything.  I kind of think this is doing a mitzvah so no one is burdened by too much driving.”  I had to agree with her.  Her husband is completely supportive of raising a Jewish family.  He has taken an Intro to Judaism class with Carrie, been to Israel with her and only celebrates the Jewish holidays.  His brother’s wife had just had a new baby and their hosting Christmas was out of consideration for the rest of his family.

All of this brings me to two observations.  First, for much of our country, Christmas is part of the emerging American civil religion.  Similar to Thanksgiving, Christmas is more about family and promoting general good will.  For years I have argued with congregants over the various Christmas symbols.   I do not agree that they are just pagan icons adapted into Christianity.  Symbols such as the tree, lights, wreaths, luminaries, Santa, and even the giving of gifts all have deep Christian symbolism.  For years I have urged people to reject these Christmas trappings as they DO reflect a religious perspective.  No one cares.  To the consternation of Christian clergy, all of these symbols are losing or have lost their Christian meanings.  They are just part of the general civil celebration of a happy winter solstice holiday.  Indeed, if there is any religion being celebrated by all Christmas participants, it is the religion of capitalism.  All of this is not what I am used to, but it is the reality.

The second lesson is probably more important.  As Jewish ethnicity melts away in America, Jews become more comfortable with all things Christmas.  The increase of interfaith families means that children being raised Jewish participate in family Christmas celebrations.  The boundaries keeping Jews and Christians separate are fast disappearing.  But, here is the important part, none of this prevents someone from being a committed Jew – if that is what they wish to do.  I have many congregants who, for a variety of reasons participate in Christmas celebrations.  I also see how most of these are deeply committed to our Jewish community, supporting it on many levels.  I have seen their children become far more Jewishly literate than the parents – while the parents (many of them not even Jewish) take pride in their children’s Jewish accomplishments and commitments.  These families are able to compartmentalize very differently than I do.

The problem is not that Christmas is ruining the Jewish commitment of Jews.  The problem is that Jewish institutions are not providing enough meaningful Jewish content to help Jews keep Christmas in its proper perspective.  Just because the world is shifting in the way boundaries are drawn does not mean Jews are turning away from Judaism.  It just means they see the relationship of their Judaism to American culture differently than me.  Those of us in positions to teach and lead have to articulate and demonstrate the beauty and power of Judaism.  Then we have to let go of our angst and trust that our people, if properly inspired, will find their way.

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