A Jewish Christmas

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“On the fifteenth day of the seventh month when you gather the land’s produce, you shall celebrate YHWH’s holiday seven days. […] And on the first day you shall take fruit of appealing trees, branches of palms, boughs of thick trees, and willows of a wadi, and you shall be happy in front of YHWH, your God, seven days. […] Every citizen in Israel shall live in booths, so your generations will know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am YHWH, your God.”

–Leviticus 23:39–43, Translated by Richard Elliot Friedman

Those of you who celebrate Christmas may not give a lot of thought to those who don’t. Sure, you may say “happy holidays” and support having a menorah next to the Christmas tree downtown. But the mere existence of Christmas affects people who don’t celebrate it.

My wife and I keep kosher, and like to talk about our Jewishness. While we have friends who think of us as very observant Jews, I don’t think of us that way. We don’t go to temple all that often, and I at least consider myself more spiritually Jewish than anything else. We may not dress in black suits and long dresses, but we’re visibly Jewish. For example, we have shabbat dinner parties with friends. More publicly, we build a sukkah in our backyard every year and invite friends for a loud party.

If you were to walk down the concrete stairs to snoop around in our basement, you’d find a pile of two-by-fours, stacked on folding chairs as a precaution against flooding. You might find a pile of neatly folded blue and yellow painters’ tarps that we use for the walls. And you’d probably see the loose bamboo mat that makes up the ceiling. (The ceiling has to be made of natural materials. Oddly enough, there’s no such rule indicating what the walls have to be made of.)

This temporary dwelling may be barely sturdy enough to hold itself upright, but Sukkot is a celebration; and the hut should reflect the beauty of our heritage. So, next to the box of plastic grapes and gourds, you’d also see a plastic milk crate with strings of Christmas lights. Just as Christmas itself borrowed from harvest iconography, we use twinking Christmas lights to garland the sukkah. In the night, the sukkah walls are reminiscent of the stars one should be able to see through the slats of the roof. Although one has to strain a bit to see the actual stars through the slits in the bamboo mat. The lights are mostly white and blue, the colors of modern Judaism. But a few are multicolored, and the irony of hanging these on a temporary Jewish domicile has amused us more than once.

Growing up Jewish in a mostly Christian country can be hard, in some areas. But in New Jersey, it’s been, for the most part, quite easy. I never faced anti-Semitism or discrimination until I was an adult. The Christmas season was always fun. We were never particularly jealous of our Gentile friends for their presents and pine trees, since my sister and I got presents for Chanukkah.

When the angle of the light is just right, a house next to a church will catch the sun’s rays through the its beautiful stained glass windows. And everything an American Jew does is colored by what goes on around us. In more liberal, accepting areas of the country, the holiday season is the time of year when we notice our neighbors’ colorful religion the most.

I think the Christmas season is a terrific end to the year. You decorate your homes and give to charity. Your families converge to watch television specials and give each other presents. You take a little time to remember the values of peace and love at the core of your faith. Even though the prospect of imminent togetherness causes strife–the “war on Christmas“, the family arguments, the post-holiday credit-card debt–I believe that the holiday brings out generous, welcoming aspects of humanity.

But to a Jew, the “war on Christmas” is a bit laughable. Yes, we think, it’s a struggle against assimilation, and we can identify with that, but only in an abstracted way. Taking time off for Jewish holidays requires us to use vacation days (or not get paid), but workplaces are, by default, closed on Christmas. Chanukah, a minor Jewish celebration that falls close to Christmas, has become important merely by proximity to the birth of Christ. Which is ironic, since the Maccabes had been fighting against assimilation when they lit the first menorah.

We Jews have struggled with assimilation throughout our history, and I have nor reason to think that will change. Assimilation–or the struggle against it–has always defined how we observe our holidays. Like those Christmas lights on the sukkah in our backyard, Jewish tradition has always included influences from the outside, and Jewish holidays will probably continue to do so.


Thanks to Julie Goldberg for significant editing help with this article.

This article is the part of a series of posts on holiday customs.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He’s also a musician who plays in a Celtic fusion band that has just released a brand-new studio album.

Photo by Neil Fein, via Flickr.

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2 thoughts on “A Jewish Christmas

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  1. Christmas borrowed from harvest iconography?
    Also interesting regarding assimilation: *Christmas* was a minor holiday whose importance was only inflated due to its proximity to Saturnalia. In fact, its date was most probably moved to be closer to Saturnalia so early Christians would have **more celebrating, yaaay**.

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