Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Letting go of Christmas
Even though I'm the child of two Jewish parents, I grew up celebrating Christmas. My father's first wife wasn't Jewish, so they raised their three children with both Jewish and Christian holidays. When my mom and dad met, he wasn't willing to give up Christmas, so I was raised with it, too. I believed in Santa and could hardly get to sleep on Christmas Eve, the night our family traditionally sang carols with two other families -- one Jew-ish, one non-Jewish. Our house was adorned with a fully decorated Christmas tree, stockings by the chimney, and angel chimes, and I left cookies and milk for St. Nick even after I was pretty sure he didn't exist. (They were usually sugar-free cookies, since my father was diabetic.) I didn't know of too many other Jewish families who celebrated Christmas, but our Reconstructionist congregation was offbeat enough that I doubt it caused a scandal when certain members found out that we did. When I was young, Christmas was to me what it is to countless other kids: the most magical day of the year.
I mention all of this because, like Jew-ish.com editor Leyna Krow, I find Jewish anti-Christmas sentiment tiresome at best. Yes, we're a group that's been oppressed for millennia, and yes, Christians have often been our oppressors, but whinging about the ubiquity of Christmas is like traveling to Hawaii and complaining about the heat. We live in a country that's religiously neutral on a political level but extremely Christian on a cultural level, and it's likely always to be that way. Leyna's comment that saying "Actually, I'm Jewish" when someone wishes you a merry Christmas only makes things more awkward is true, and though some Jewish activists may interpret identity politics as a way to make non-Jews feel awkward, I don't find this constructive. Pride in one's own heritage, practices, and beliefs always outshines insecurity, and many Jewish people's reactions to Christmas smack of the latter. Maybe some Jews hate Christmas because they envied their non-Jewish peers when they were little, and what they really hate is having been in such an uncomfortable position all those years. I occasionally try to shock Jews I know by telling them that I go to St. Mark's every Christmas Eve for services, and I guess that's a reactionary response to reactionary anti-Christmas grouchiness.
That said, I find myself drifting away from most of my personal Christmas customs. This is the second year in a row that I haven't bought a tree, nominally because of the cost but actually because I live at the Ravenna Kibbutz, where displaying a Christmas tree in the living room would be too much even for a liberal Jewish community to handle. Having a small tree in my room might have been nice, but I prefer a larger tree in a more public space, so halfway through December I decided to let it go. I've watched It's a Wonderful Life at the Grand Illusion every Christmastime since 2002, but I may not go this year. I know the movie practically by heart, and seeing it for the ninth time doesn't really appeal to me (though I'm still awfully fond of it). I went to a caroling party a week ago, but I barely knew anyone there, and I focused more on the food than the singing. When I observe Christmas in Seattle, even in a limited way, I'm doing so mostly to honor my father's memory. He believed that winter holidays were about warmth, light, and common humanity, and he didn't see why Jews couldn't enjoy two instead of just one. (As an adult, I've added Solstice to the lineup, too.)
My Christmas customs also have a tinge of desperation about them, because I'm still grasping at a golden past -- the near-perfection of childhood Christmas -- that I can't return to. In much the same way that New Year's Eve almost always feels anticlimactic to me, Christmas has become a source of muted sadness. I want to feel connected to my father, and to the magical feeling of Christmases past, yet both of these things remain beyond my reach. Finding a vibrant Jewish community has helped me expect less from Christmas -- any kind of social support makes the winter holidays less melancholy -- but I may never get excited about Latkepalooza and other Jewish Christmas events. To me, they seem transparently like distractions, attempts to stay entertained during a day that has negative, even hurtful connotations for many Jews.
Of course, that's precisely what these events are, and there's nothing wrong with that, even if I sometimes feel that their organizers and participants doth protest too much. I don't get jazzed about The Hebrew Hammer screenings and Chinese food feasts on Christmas because I don't want to be distracted -- I want to carry my father's idiosyncratic love and observance of Christmas into the future. Whether or not to raise my own children with Christmas, especially if I marry Jewish, may prove to be a thorny question, but there's no need to resolve it yet. I was heartened to learn recently that an outspoken Jewish activist I know, someone whose personal philosophy is steeped in identity politics, plans to be at St. Mark's tomorrow night as well. A comment she made implied that she's half-Jewish, and that she goes to church on Christmas Eve to honor the non-Jewish part of her heritage.
Since I'll be writing an article soon for Jew-ish.com on the subject of half-Jewish identity, I was both intrigued and comforted to hear that she, too, would be attending midnight mass. Christmas Eve services may hit more of a nerve than other Jewish cultural and spiritual dabblings -- in Buddhism, say, or Eastern medicine -- but sitting in a pew on Dec. 24 doesn't have to be more sinister than going to meditation class. I visit St. Mark's for what my friend Sarah calls the "smells and bells" -- the beautiful pageantry, the breathtaking music, and the sense of universal goodwill. Though I'm not sure how I'll mark Christmas as the years pass, I agree with my father that any ceremony or gathering that helps dispel the winter blues -- especially in Seattle -- isn't likely to do any harm.