It is a question I have had to face every year. As American Jews or Jewish Americans (or perhaps both…..), it is a question that needs to be answered, even if the answer changes from year to year or over time. We knew it even before the recent PEW study told us – mixed faith families are a big part of our community, and will be from now on, as long as there are Jews. Ah, that’s the rub, the fear, the “bigger” issue, isn’t it?
We are afraid at many levels that we may well be seeing the end of our tradition. I am confident that it is not the end of Jews – and I am confident that what being Jewish means in 100 years will be very different from what we understand today. As a rabbi, these issues and concerns are not idle “what if” kind of questions – they are real, everyday issues and concerns. This year, I faced the title question from a congregant who came from a family Christmas celebration (both parents Jewish, no current significant other……..) to join us in Shabbat. I also faced a board member worrying that we were somehow not respecting the Christian family members within our congregational family as we planned our December 25th Mitzvah day/Chinese food/Movie/Shabbat events.
The question was a big concern for the member who came from the family celebration. The rationale was that we are Reform, after all. And we are. We are many labels in our group. Some of us are Reform, some of us are Reconstructionist, some are Conservative, many also enjoy the renewal flair for our services and events. Do any of those labels come with Christmas? No. But being American does, and being in mixed families certainly does. And very few American families are not mixed – at some level.
The “all Jewish” family still has Christian friends or colleagues, and almost everyone has some relative who is Christian. And I am including those who call themselves Jews, and who worship Jesus, as Christians. The text book I teach religion from defines Christianity as: “… based on the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus.”
Google defines it as: “the religion based on the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, or its beliefs and practices.” Certainly there are many more definitions. Both of these definitions exclude Islam (which considers Jesus as both prophet and messiah, but does not base itself on the person or resurrection of Jesus) from Christianity and still includes many newer less “mainstream” Christianities.
Obviously there are also the huge questions associated with the origins of Christmas and the popular appropriation of other celebrations in surrounding cultures. While biblicalarchaeology.org puts this practice at a somewhat later date, there are other indications of such practices in the Jewish community.
From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. At this late point, Christmas may well have acquired some pagan trappings.
The Jewish indications come from such things as the modern Seder at Pesach (Passover) which had to change with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE; it became a blending of Nowruz and its Haft Seen symbolism with the Roman symposiums to take the modern form we know today.
Chanukah, the very minor Jewish festival that comes around the time of Christmas is generally misunderstood by both Jews and non-Jews. It is minor partially because its celebration comes after the TaNa”Ch (Jewish Scriptures) are closed and because it is also a challenging theme. It was the rededication of the Temple (II Maccabees 10:5-8). In Jewish Antiquities, Josephus calls the holiday the “Festival of Lights.”
5 They rededicated the Temple on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev, the same day of the same month on which the Temple had been desecrated by the Gentiles. 6 The happy celebration lasted eight days, like the Festival of Shelters, and the people remembered how only a short time before, they had spent the Festival of Shelters [Sukkot] wandering like wild animals in the mountains and living in caves. 7 But now, carrying green palm branches and sticks decorated with ivy, they paraded around, singing grateful praises to him who had brought about the purification of his own Temple. 8 Everyone agreed that the entire Jewish nation should celebrate this festival each year.
So Chanukah is far from a Jewish Christmas. The shift into a larger gift-giving festival IS a response to Christmas, however. The more traditional annual gift giving season Jewishly is spring. So let’s take a hard look at realities in the US.
As stated earlier, Christmas IS everywhere. I remember being a small girl and loving the lavishly decorated tree in the lobby of the building where my father went to record a TV show. I would, with parental permission, pick up the little pieces of tinsel that had fallen to the ground and place them gently back on the tree. Did it have an deeper significance to me? No. I liked shiny things and it seemed to me that the tinsel belonged on the tree.
I knew it was called a Christmas tree and that we, as Jews, did not believe in or celebrate Christmas. In retrospect, I am not sure I understood what “believe in” or “celebrate” meant at that age. I saw no conflict and my child mind thought of my actions as helping my Christian neighbors. I never did ask my parents what they thought of it at the time.
I grew up with a strong sense that Christians were certainly allowed to celebrate Christmas, and that I also had the inalienable right not to do so. I also felt an obligation to supporting both parts of that equation. For me, my Christian friends – and I had Christian friends from school – were to be assisted in any way that did not involve my own religious involvement in their festival. So I could enjoy their trees, their tinsel, their sparkly stuff. I did not believe in Santa; I think I wore that as a badge, actually. I had no interest in sitting on anyone’s lap, even if there were long lines everywhere implying that others wanted to do so. I had no trouble telling my parents what I wanted for Chanukah and they told me what they wanted from me. I saw no need for Santa; love and gifts were (and are) magical in their own right.
There is another blog here about what does it do to “outsource” generosity, giving, and love to a fictional character….but that is for another time.
My feelings toward the right of Christians to celebrate Christmas took an interesting turn during one of the times I lived in Israel. I was attending the American College in Jerusalem. The classes were all in English and it had a large number of Christian and other religions represented among the student body. A number of the students were children of ambassadors to Israel. As Christmas approached that year, two trees appeared. One went to a private room and one was set up in the student lounge adjacent to the cafeteria. One tree came from two students (no questions as to where it came from….) and the one in the lounge was actually a gift from the Israeli government (to reduce the number of trees “liberated” from nearby forests).
One of the students (a Buddhist, I think), went into town and bought big boxes of Elite brand kosher chocolate Santas and these were hung all over the tree. A side bar: it was from these Santas that I learned that chocolate Maccabees and chocolate Santas were the same under their wrappings…..
The student explained that it was a custom in her country to share the chocolates over the course of the season. Other students strung popcorn into garlands (this was tasty as well) and made other decorations. With the TV Christmas tree strongly in my own mind, I was disappointed to learn that the tinsel that had been everywhere for Sukkot had completely disappeared. I volunteered to take chocolate bar wrappers and cut them into tinsel, making sure to grind one into the fabric at the base of the tree.
Chanukah, by the way, had been earlier in December. We celebrated it with college student enthusiasm and it was long gone before the tree showed up. All was looking fine, until that fateful night…….
We walked into the lounge for breakfast to find the tree upturned, the glass ornaments shattered, and the chocolate missing. The generous student was devastated. A group of us tried to comfort her and set out to rebuy (collectively) the various things that had been destroyed or taken. We managed to restore the tree (mostly) to its previous appearance. Then things got nastier. A group of students declared that it was against their religion (Judaism) to walk through the lounge on the way to the cafeteria because of the presence of the “pagan” tree.
The ensuing student meeting turned heated between Jews defending the right of the Christians to have a tree and those against it. There were basically two camps opposed to the tree – those who objected on religious grounds of it being a pagan worship item and those who said that because this was Israel, “they” should learn what it feels like or because this was Israel, we (Jews?) do not have to put up with having a tree there. It wasn’t too far into this heated meeting that the non-Jews left, some angry, some in tears. I will always remember that meeting and how astounded (and embarrassed) I was at the language and positioning of fellow Jews. The Jews who objected to walking through the lounge were given an alternate entrance to the cafeteria that was usually not open. Unfortunately, the student body never did really recover from that incident.
Many years later, I was ordained and then served a small community in Tucson. One year, Chanukah overlapped Christmas (as it will in 2016). We had Chanukah dinner (or so I thought) at a member’s house. A group of us then went on a wagon ride through Winterhaven, a nearby non-gated community in Tucson served by a Housing Association that requires all residents to decorate with lights the second half of December. They charge admission to see the many ornate decorations and give that money to charity. Some nights cars are allowed through, but most nights only horse drawn carriages and foot traffic are allowed. It was fun, especially since most of us on our wagon were Jewish. We tried to guess which homes belonged to Jewish families.
The following year, we were invited again for dinner on the 25th of December, only this year it was not still Chanukah. It was then that I learned that this member always has Christmas dinner on the 25th (not Chinese) and that the dinner was indeed a celebration of Christmas. I did not go that year and was never invited back for another Christmas dinner.
But I have gone to Christmas dinners at the homes of Christians or to a restaurant Chinese or otherwise on the 25th. Was I celebrating Christmas? Did we celebrate it by having our Mitzvah day/Chinese food/Movie/Shabbat? After all, Christmas IS a national holiday. With the exception of some restaurants, bars, gas stations, and drug stores, much is closed. Whether I want to or not, my activities are different on the 25th. Isn’t that a form of observance? And if we are partying, is it not a celebration?
In many ways yes.
And for those families who have members who are Christian, supporting them as beloved family will require some form of celebration.
So as I talked with the congregant who asked me the question that titles this blog, I held all of these thoughts in my head. I told that person that I believed it was okay to celebrate in secular ways, it was okay to gather and enjoy family and friends, a good meal. Should it be called Christmas? That is the name of the national holiday.
And yet, my answer troubles me. What troubles me? I know there is a line there that distinguishes us from Christians. I am pretty clear in my own mind where that line is for me. I am very sure it is not nearly so clear for those who do not know Judaism well and for those who do not know Christianity well. I am not bothered by the pagan roots of trees or reindeer – I get it that they are not worshiped over God. These traditions are more about nature than anything else.
It is not about having a good time or a tasty dinner. It is about what makes me distinctly Jewish and not Christian. It is the part of me that insists that Jews (and everyone, actually) NOT be forced to do ANY part of Christmas that makes them uncomfortable. It is the part of me that wants public events to be holiday celebrations or winter celebrations – and a special hurrah to the St Lucie Chamber of Commerce who came to me without my saying a word to tell me that next year, it WILL be that way (it was not this year).
I think the bottom line is what helps keep Judaism vibrant, distinct, and the contributor of quintessential Jewish values and ideals. When we focus on that requirement, how does it impact what we do and how we do it? How do we transmit that fire to our youth so that they WILL know the differences and understand them while being loving and supportive to our neighbors who are not Jewish? The answers today may not be the answers tomorrow.
And with that – may 2016 be a year of happiness, joy, good health, and peace.