Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Year Without A Santa Claus

What do Jews do on Christmas? Well, according to Judaism 101, there are a few options:
  • Go out for Chinese food
  • Go to your local Matzah Ball
  • Go to a movie
  • Get together with family
  • Go to work
That might be great for American Jews holding non-government jobs, but for us US government employees living abroad, that proved to be a bit tricky.
  • In the US, non-Christian Chinese-Americans run the Chinese restaurants. Here in Mexico, they are run by Catholic Mexicans, who are most likely not working on Christmas.
  • A Matzah Ball is a dumpling made from matzah meal. But in this case, it also refers to a singles dance. Doesn't really apply to us. Maybe next year. Ha!
  • We've seen all of the Engish-language movies that we want to see that are currently available at the cinema
  • Family is far, far away
  • Consulate = government = closed

So, what were a couple of recently converted, newly displaced Jews to do?

Well, thanks to, we did manage to watch the 27th Annual Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade hosted by Ryan Seacrest.

We joined a coworker for drinks and a holiday film (Four Christmases) last night, and will be joining them again this evening for a delicious Christmas dinner.

Wait. So why, as Jews, are we celebrating Christmas at all? Glad you asked. There are three reasons that come to mind as of this writing.

First, it is perfectly acceptable for people of different faiths to appreciate the customs (music, movies, foods, decorations) of others and to celebrate those customs with family and friends of different backgrounds. Jews do the same when we invite friends and family to our Passover seders.

Second, Christmas is impossible to escape, especially now. In our pre-Jewish, pre-Foreign Service days, TJ and I would decorate an artificial tree, buy each other a few presents, and cook a large meal on the 25th of December. There would be the occasional Secret Santa exchange at the office, but for the most part we kept to ourselves. This year, we have found ourselves attending the Consulate's Christmas Posada, the Consul General's Christmas Party, a wonderfully moving charity Christmas dinner at an orphanage, and a tree-shopping excursion with friends. We have politely declined offers to attend a Christmas potluck dinner, another Christmas party, and two other Christmas Posadas. A large percentage of this occurred in early December, as we fumbled through our first Chanukah by ourselves. The Jewish community in Guadalajara is small, and although we converted under the Reform Movement, there is no Reform Congregation to be found.

Third, it's almost impossible to disassociate with 29 years of personal tradition, especially in light of reasons one and two. I am not just newly Jewish. I'm newly religious, too. In my family, Christmas was always about decorating, gift-giving and overeating. Like many that celebrate the holiday, Christmas for me was never more than a good excuse for a fun party.

Okay, so thanks to the Consulate's Posada,
Santa wasn't totally absent this year...

Perspective must change when one considers religion, though. Even though many Christians don't necessarily associate the holiday with the birth of Christ, Jews must. To celebrate Christmas is to either insult your own religious background by honoring a figure not central to your faith, or to insult the religious background of others by making light of a figure (that should be) central to theirs.

Religious holidays are a no-no. Secular and civil holidays are perfectly fine. That means New Years Day, Columbus Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, etc. are perfectly acceptable.

Except, for most Jews living in Israel, and Orthodox Jews in general, December 31/January 1 are just ordinary days. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and occurs much later.

Columbus Day opponents in the 19th century saw the holiday as a tool for further expansion of Catholic influence.

Halloween finds its origins in the pagan holidays of Pomona and Parentalia, or perhaps the Celtic festival of Samhain. Celebrating Halloween is considered taboo by certain branches of Judaism and Christianity.

There is even evidence to suggest that the first Thanksgiving was inspired by the Jewish Festival of Booths (Sukkot), which occurs in the autumn and celebrates the gathering of crops. Is it possible that the entire country has been unknowingly celebrating a Jewish holiday since 1621? Would it even matter to anyone if this was the case?

I've seen many discussions online asking why Christians don't celebrate Jewish holidays. There's certainly Biblical basis for it. The answer of course is that Jews stick to the Hebrew Bible (known as the Old Testament by Christians) whereas Christians draw inspiration primarily from the New Testament. That is what the New Testament says to do, after all.

Holidays are a tricky business for the religiously inclined. For all any of us know, we turn into traffic lights in western Arizona when we die. And yet, if you have made that commitment to follow a certain faith, you should hold yourself accountable for your actions. Where do you draw the line between fun and sacrilege? I certainly don't know. Well, yes, I suppose I do. I should leave Christmas in the past and find pleasure in all of the new holidays I have gained:

Purim. Passover. Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur. Sukkot. Chanukah.

Heck, in Judaism, every Friday night is considered a holiday (Shabbat).

Over the past year I have been able to experience each of them to some degree, and have found them to be quite wonderful.

So why, then, do I care so much about Christmas? I mean, Easter certainly never meant much to me (which, since it is the more important of the two to Christians, is definitely a good thing for my Jewish identity).

I'll tell you why I love Christmas.

I love the fact that every year since birth my mother would buy me a dated ornament for the tree.

I love the fact that every year since we met TJ and I have had an ornament personalized for our tree at Disney's Days of Christmas.

I love the fact that, when we were forced to move on Christmas Eve, Santa was kind enough to bring my 5-year old self a new present every time we returned to our old house for a fresh load of boxes. I got Castle Grayskull that year.

I love the fact that, when we had no plans last Christmas Eve, my friend Alfie shared his family dinner with us.

I have studied Judaism for over a year now, and the only thing that gives me pause is Christmas. Not the story of the Virgin Birth. No, it's the memories of days gone by, where Christmas was a huge, secular ball of joy.

But giving up Christmas doesn't change the past. The past is precious, and will always exist in our hearts, photos, and personalized ornaments.

So what changes without Christmas? Let's see.

I love the fact that I can still treasure the Christmas ornaments from my childhood, though stored in the closet they may be.

I love the fact that this year I was able to purchase an ornament for personalization at Disney's Days of Christmas that was completely secular. I was also able to purchase a "Happy Hannukah" plate featuring Mickey Mouse and a pile of presents.

I love the fact that I'm old enough and solvent enough to buy my own Castle Grayskull if I want to. And that I am able to bring some small amount of cheer to those less fortunate than I ever was or will be.

I love the fact that, even though we are far from home, we still have friends who will invite us over to share their holiday dinner.

When I look at it that way, I guess nothing changes without Christmas.

So, I encourage lots of discussion on this one. Christians, how do you feel about the current state of Christmas? Lifetime Jews, how do you feel about the "Christmas Dilemma?" Converted Jews, how have you adapted your love of the holidays to more suitably match your new lives?

....and would it be such a bad thing if I wanted a Chanukah bush next year?


  1. Very thoughtful post. I appreciated it. Though Christian (and Mormon to boot), I can see how hard the whole season would be. I think you did a great job. We have Jewish friends that gave us very thoughtful presents this year, and I appreciated them doing that. I in turn should give Chanukah presents to them! I should celebrate with them! I think when the focus is on people and on your friendships it's hard to go wrong. I guess that still doesn't make the situation any easier, so I applaud your efforts to live your religion.

    P.S. I totally think you should adopt if you are able to! (I know it's hard with the Foreign Service and all, but at least you could keep the child with you when traveling, unlike your poor pets! I'm sorry that happened!)

  2. The article you posted helps to explain how it feels being an American Jew on Christmas. This article ecapsulates it even more:

    The article, which is actually how many American Jews feel during Christmas in the states, is belied by a multitude of close-minded comments. Hundreds of them.

    Unfortunately, as a convert, you don't know what it's like growing up surrounded by anti-semetism, and pro-Christian/Christmas as a cultural/religious minority every year. As your article says, having a Hanukkah Bush is considered to be a joke. It would be, at best, disrespectful to have one, and at worst, sacreligious. You don't know what it's like to have ancestors die in the Holocaust or pogroms in the old country. Christmas is a yearly reminder not only that we are outsiders, but that if the will of the majority demands it, we could die en masse because of our faith or background.

    Bear in mind, I grew up middle-of-the-road conservative Jew and do not practice now...I maintain my heritage, and do not engage in Christmas activites. When growing up, we did not go to others' houses for Christmas celebrations out of respect for ours and their religions. We also did not invite Christians to our sedars, and sedars that we went to (both conservative and orthodox) did not ever, except on rare occasion, have Non-Jews at them. Certainly, we would never ever have Christians accompany us to services for any holiday, as seats were paid for and pre-determined with tickets. I hope this helps explain the December Dilema.

    FYI - Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, not Yom Kippur.

  3. Jamie - Thank you so much for the kind words (especially in your P.S.!). I agree, celebrating with friends and loved ones, strengthening those relationships, is very important. I don't think anyone's spiritual identity is shaken by enjoying the company of those you care about as they celebrate events that are important to long as you hold true to yourself.

    Anon - Good catch on the Jewish New Year. I have corrected my original post. That's what I get for posting without proofreading!

    Based on your comment, I assume you are approaching this matter from an Orthodox or Conservative perspective.

    As a Reform convert, I have found it common that people (including Rabbis) will spend the 24th of December breaking bread with their Christian friends. Synagogues conduct toy drives so that underprivileged Christian children can have a happy holiday. Seder holders invite everyone that is willing to participate, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise, to share in the joy of a delicious Jewish meal and learn the story of Passover.

    You are right in saying that I will never know the pain of having an ancestor lost to the Holocaust or pogroms. And yet, as a Jew that is trying to live a cultural AND religious lifestyle, I already understand that some will question my Jewishness because of my sexual orientation, genealogy, and method of conversion.

    Longtime readers will know that I approach every post with humor and sentimentality. But let's be frank.

    In my opinion, how to embrace God is left to the individual. Your relationship with God is yours and yours alone. Personally speaking, Reform Judaism really speaks to me in its approach to God and the relationships we build with others because of, and perhaps in spite of, that approach. Every religion has leaders (and followers) that will tell you what they think is right or wrong, but the fact remains that these choices are left to the individual. Nobody knows the true nature of god, or religion, nor can they ever. Religion is but a template for how you choose to live your life. You choose the one that helps you be the best person you can be. And if a Jew wants to have a Chanukah bush or invite a non-Jew to a seder, that does not make him a Christian, a bad Jew, or a bad person. If a Christian chooses to attend a Shabbat dinner at a friend's house, or acknowledge the Festival of Lights, that doesn't make him a Jew, a bad Christian, or a bad person.

    The only thing that makes us bad Christians, Jews, or people are our actions towards others.

  4. Dear Aaron,

    I enjoyed reading your measured response to Anonymous' comment.

    As a Jew (granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, great-granddaughter of pilgrims from Russia in the 20s, etc etc), I've grown accustomed to being a (white, middle-class, educated) minority. Most of my friends, from elementary school on, are, at least nominally, Christians of some denomination.

    While I agree that I would not invite non-Jews to high holy day services (out of respect for the more conservative members of my congregation as well as because Yom Kippur is kind of intense), I was also happy to bring a friend to Purim. He had a great time, and exchanged emails with the woman who was teaching folk dances (he's a dancer).

    Ultimately, here's what I (and my family) do: We accept that we live in a country that is, by-and-large, Christian. We don't celebrate Christmas in any way, including Chanukah Bushes (I love the lights of Christmas/winter holidays, but never understood the desire to kill a tree). I give my friends Chanukah presents, and gladly accept their Christmas gifts.

    Instead of celebrating Christmas or wishing we could be at work, we do useful/practical things around the house like painting a room or gardening or fixing up other odds and ends. We take the dogs to the beach, we read, we catch up on our sleep debt.

    Who cares if you do something 'wrong'? Life is short; do what makes you happy.

    (Of course, all that being said, the one real fight I had with my (non-Jewish) ex boyfriend was about Christmas. He insisted that it was not a Christian holiday. I maintain that you don't have to be Christian to celebrate it, but it is indeed a Christian holiday, and the moment you can call a religious holiday "secular" is the moment you can mandate religion, a paranoia I carry, perhaps because of my 'minority' status).

    And thanks for writing about your experiences with the FS and in Mexico :)