Category Archives: Christmas

Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas

            When I was in my early twenties, my sister had a son.  My nephew was two or three years old when I visited them one year during what has come to be referred to as “The Holiday Season,” which is a euphemism for “The Season During Which the Dominant Religion (and Those Whose Families Once Affiliated With This Religion and Still Celebrate its Holidays) Try to Pretend That Having Christmas Trees in Public Buildings Does Not Violate the Separation of Church and State.”  My visit happened to coincide with a minor Jewish holiday known as Hanukkah.  It is a tradition at this time of year to give small gifts to children, so I brought one along.

            As is usual in the observance of Hanukkah, my sister was lighting her menorah every night for eight nights, adding one candle for each night.  This is done to celebrate the miracle in which God supposedly allowed a group of violent religious fundamentalists, known as the Maccabees, eight nights of light for the price of one night of oil.  She was also giving her son a gift each night, spreading out the gifts from all the relatives over the eight nights of the holiday.

            I was completely taken aback.  Partly this was because my sister has never been much of one for religion.  But partly it was because I had never before been in a house where gifts were given on all eight nights.  In our aunt’s house, where we lived for the second half of our childhood, gifts were all opened on the first night.  The family gathered in the den, surrounded by mounds of presents, and we each took turns opening gifts.  In twenty-eight minutes, there was wrapping paper everywhere and each of us had his or her gifts for the season.

            I assumed this was the way the holiday was celebrated in all families.  I figured that in the modern world, families were too busy to celebrate each and every night and that we were doing pretty darned well by at least remembering to light the candles every night.  So, when I saw my sister doing it the old-fashioned way, I was a bit awestruck.

            Over the years, my attitude towards this practice has evolved. We, too, celebrate each night.  There are no gifts the first night, as we give to charity instead for that one evening.  The rest of the nights, there are gifts, spreading out any from other relatives plus a few from us over the eight nights.  My friend, Caroline, once told me about a family that shares experiences each night: games, ice cream, whatnot.  I like that, too, but this really is the only time, other than their birthdays, that our children get new toys from their parents, and unlike the Maccabees, we are not zealots.

            To me now, the idea of opening a whole slew of gifts on the first night is a bit grotesque.  It smacks of consumerism rather than meaning.  It debases the participants because it really has nothing to do with the holiday and everything to do with getting new stuff, which is ugly.  But, more than that, it is about Christmas.

            To me, a Jewish household that has a single big night of gift-giving is aping Christianity.  This practice is akin to Jewish households that have Hanukkah Bushes.  I am not, of course, referring to mixed-faith households, in which each religion is recognized.  But ours is a fully Jewish household, and if we were to try to pretend Hanukkah is Christmas, it would feel a bit too uncomfortably like a certain famous Harriet Beecher Stowe character.

            I suspect that, as our kids get older, we will not celebrate every night together, just as we won’t have Shabbat dinner as a family every week.  But, I do hope we are wise enough to recognize that we are simply outgrowing a practice that is mostly for the kids and scale back, rather than giving a lot of gifts at once.  I hope we are all comfortable enough with our own heritage to not need to leech the trappings of someone else’s, a practice that treats Christmas and Hanukkah as though they are only about greed.

            Because, as everyone knows, the best part of Hanukkah is not the presents, the lights, the dreidels, or even the gold coin chocolates.  It goes without saying that it’s all about the doughnuts.

Ass out of you and me

            Awhile back, someone asked how I can consider myself Jewish without believing in God.  Indulge me, please, while I respond.

            I am a secular Jew, which means that I am ethnically Jewish but not necessarily religiously.  Note that I do not say “racially” Jewish.  Race is about biology, and Judaism is NOT a race.  That kind of thinking led to some nasty behavior in Germany in the last century.  While Judaism is not a race, it is most surely an ethnicity, much like Italian-American or African-American is an ethnicity.  (To add to the confusion, there is a racial component to African-American ethnicity, in that African-Americans are usually black, but not all black people are African-American.  This is just a road I don’t want to go down.)  As an ethnic group, Jews share many elements of cultural history.  A large part of that culture is synagogue-related, as the shul is the center of the community life.  So, a secular Jew may go to services to be a part of the tradition, the community, the history, and the values of Jewish life without actually believing she is talking to a higher power.  Perforce, there is a lot of crossover between the ethnic elements of Judaism and the religious elements.

            This distinction is clear to most modern (non-orthodox) Jews, but it may seem confusing to outsiders.  After all, there is no such thing as an ethnic or secular Christian, right?

            Or is there?

            Many of you responded to my post about Christmas by saying you are not Christian but you celebrate the holiday.  I would wager, however, that those who feel this way are of Christian descent.  People whose families are historically Christian and who enjoy the traditions and history of the holiday while not subscribing to the religious aspects.  That is to say, secular Christians.

            Ethnic Christianity is so pervasive in this country that it has come to be seen as the default, the absence of ethnicity.  It is seen as a neutral state of Americaness, as in, “I am an atheist, but I celebrate Christmas because it is an American holiday.”  Well, no, it is not an American holiday, it is a Christian one that has both religious and secular aspects.  The vast majority of Americans are either religious or ethnic Christians, so much so that their ethnicity disappears and they become a sort of baseline.  Those who are not Christian at all are then seen as having this different religion plopped on top of that neutrality, which is why people often see a Jew or a Muslim as “ethnic,” but do not see a WASP as such.

            I imagine there will be those who are offended by this concept.  Non-believers will be annoyed at being called Christian, while believers will feel it cheapens their faith.  But, as long as people are going to insist that upon Christmas being both a secular and a religious holiday, there is no other way to look at it.

            That being said, let me clarify a few things.  I do not dislike Christmas and am always honored when invited to join in with a friend’s celebration.  I don’t mind hearing about how much others love Christmas, as long as it is not the only topic of conversation in December.  I like Christmas decorations on houses, just not in publicly funded places like schools, although when I taught at a Catholic university I had no issues with it.  I totally get why everything is closed on Christmas, although it is a bit annoying.

            What I don’t like is the assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas, which then marks those of us who don’t as aberrations.  I don’t like the term “the holidays” because it is a euphemism for Christmas; if you are going to talk about Christmas, call a spade a spade.  I don’t like being treated as though my ethnicity is abnormal, which is exactly what you are doing when you claim Christmas is American.

            You cannot assume everyone is married or married to someone of the opposite sex.  You cannot assume every woman wants children.  You cannot assume all mothers have a choice whether or not to work.  And you cannot assume that everyone celebrates Christmas, just by virtue of being American.  

The 72 days of Christmas

            “I wish I was  still at my school in London” has become a familiar refrain around here.  The first time Zachary said it, I was surprised.  He does not remember most of those children, and some were rather cruel to him.  His teacher was wonderful, but so is his teacher here.  Why would he want to be there?

            “They celebrate gooder holidays.”

            Setting aside for a moment that he knows perfectly well that the superlative of “good” is “better,” his statement is simply untrue.  He went to a church preschool in London and attends a synagogue one here.  At his church preschool, they only celebrated Christmas and Easter.  Here, there seems to be a Jewish holiday every other week, not counting the weekly Shabbat celebrations.

            Yet, somehow he has gotten it into his head that Christmas is better than any Jewish holiday, which is a little mystifying.  All his friends are from the school, which is to say Jewish.  He does not spend time in malls.  He does not watch commercials.  Other than a few lights around the neighborhood, nothing in his field of vision has shifted.

            His brother has no idea that Christmas is afoot, but he sure likes the lights.  He likes to go out for walks in the early evening, exclaiming over icicle lights and luminous reindeer, speaking in both English and Spanish, mind you.  He is so impressed he forgets to pretend that he does not know Spanish.

            All of this is to say that, for a Jewish household, we’ve had our fill of Christmas already.  It’s not our freakin’ holiday and it does nothing for me or my husband.  While I am interested to learn about the ways that Christmas is meaningful to you and your family, it is not meaningful to me. I truly want to hear about the religious aspects of this holiday because I respect its significance in so many lives, but I really do not need to know every detail of how you shop, bake, and decorate, unless it is particularly moving as a family event for you.

            I ask those of you who celebrate Christmas to remember this: It is not a secular holiday.  It is not an American holiday.  It is a Christian holiday, a beautiful and special time.  But for me it is just another day, a rather annoying one on which everything is closed.  Do not try to mask it with “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays.”  My faith only has a very minor holiday at this time of year, so if you really want to honor my faith, you’ll need to check in with me in September.

            Go.  Celebrate with your church and your family.  That is as it should be.  But also remember, please, that not everyone spends five weeks obsessing about your major holidays.  Please, now and again, talk to me about something other than Christmas.  Since I’m hearing plenty about it from my kids.