Reflections on a Jewish Christmas

This is my first posting on this blog, so forgive me if I mess it up.

Right now we are in that American holiday limbo between Christmas and New Years.  Yet I cannot shake my discomfort with this year’s Christmas day experiences.

Many people wonder, “What do Jews do on Christmas?”  I know one antisemitic joke responds that we all gather around our cash registers and sing, “O What a Friend I Have in Jesus!”  Well, I just recently turned 60 years old and can say from my own life experiences that I have never witnessed or heard of anything remotely resembling that remark.  Indeed, when you consider who own the major merchandising firms today, the overwhelming majority of these folks are Christian.  I have always been astounded at how hate filled and bitter this joke is; all the more so since it is attached to a season which is supposed to be dedicated to “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward All”.

All my life, as a Jew, I have found the Christmas season to be one of both great beauty – physical & spiritual – and great discomfort.

I have always loved the lights and the festive spirit.  As a child, on Christmas eve, my family would pile into our car and my father would drive us all around town so we could admire the lights.  I still do that with my own children.  As I have grown older, I have increasingly grown to appreciate the uplifting messages of the Christmas stories, songs, and films.  I am a collector of DVDs and yes, I admit it, I own copies all three of Tim Allen’s SANTA CLAUSE movies, Bill Murray’s SCROOGED (I have always adored Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL), and of course, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  Christmas Shistmas!  I find these stories to be universally applicable and universally enlightening.  There is much of great value that this holiday season offers all people, regardless of faith affiliations.

Yet there is the discomforting part of Christmas as well.  In my opinion, there is no other time of the year in which Jews find themselves feeling more on the outside of American society than now.  Granted, we are a religious minority living in a predominantly Christian population.  I fully understand and appreciate that, and I do not in the least begrudge my Christian neighbors the joy and the wonder of their very special holiday.  Indeed, I pray that they would actually take the true meaning of this day more to heart.  For Christmas is not, or more correctly, should not be centered around its commercial and material aspects.  Rather, our Christian neighbors should focus on the profound spiritual message of the day.  Borrowing a term from my own faith tradition, Christmas is a Christian High Holy Day and should be treated as such.

Yet all that being said, as a Jew, I must admit that I find the constant barrage of music extolling Jesus as lord and savior, which one encounters in the stores, in the restaurants, on the radio, on TV, and most painfully, in the public school music programs to be a wearying assault on the very validity of being a non-Christian in America.  Indeed, it saddens me when I witness Jewish and other non-Christian children, whose love of music has led them to desiring to participate in public school music programs, both choral and instrumental, being called upon to praise Jesus in song, declaring him a spiritual king.  It has broken my heart to watch as my own children have ultimately come to their own decisions to give up their beloved music activities rather than continue to buck the tide.  My youngest daughter attends a public high school which has a “tradition” of  performing Handel’s MESSIAH every year at this time – and I find that an outrageous violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee that the government will strictly refrain from promoting any one faith over the others.

Then, as if to add insult to injury, a few years back Bill O’Reilly started in on his rants about”The War on Christmas” and that red herring just refuses to let go.  One cannot imagine how painful it is to be considered an enemy of Christmas and Christians simply because one advocates in our society on behalf of a increase in multi-cultural and multi-faith sensitivities.  It was a dark day, indeed for America, when there arose those who proclaimed that the greetings of “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” were part of a nefarious conspiracy to destroy the very essence of Christianity.  My-way-or-the-highway seasonal greetings?  Who would have thunk it?  I do not know about the rest of my fellow Jews, but I for one am weary of being considered the Grinch Who Stole Christmas just because I am proud enough to say that in our society there are more faiths than just Christianity.  What ever happened to “live and let live”?

So one can say that part of what Jews do on Christmas is to both bask in the beauty of the season and persevere, looking forward to its passing.

But still, what do Jews actually do on Christmas day?  For many of us, we have half jokingly called it our tradition to go out for Chinese food and then to a movie.  Why Chinese food?  Because, until recently, the Chinese restaurants were the only ones open on Christmas.  And how about the movies?  They, too, were the only form of entertainment outside of the home which was available on Christmas day.  And besides, with all the Christians gathering in their homes, with their families, opening their presents under their Christmas trees, drinking egg nog, and wearing festive clothing in green and red, both the Chinese restaurants and the movie theaters were pretty empty.  Service was good and you could always get in to see a film.  In fact, back when I was in Lincoln, Nebraska, I knew of one Jewish family who hopped from movie theater to movie theater on Christmas day, always striving to break their own record as to how many films they could see.  The Chinese restaurants and the movie theaters were somewhat of a Jewish haven on this most Christian of days.  We enjoyed having them to ourselves.

That is until recently.  Over the last few years, I have been surprised at how many others have joined us in those “Jewish havens” on this most “Christian of days.”  The places have been packed.  Indeed, this year on Christmas day my family and I encountered bigger crowds in the movie theater than at any other time during the rest of the year.  It was like a mirror image of all the Christmas days at the movies of my youth and even my middle age!  Gazing upon the massive crowds, my daughter asked me, “Aren’t these people supposed to be in church or something?  Aren’t they supposed to be over at Grandma’s house visiting with their family?”  And I joined her in my wonderment.  It seemed as though the secret of the Jewish Christmas had leaked out and now everyone wanted to take advantage of it.

But tongue-&-cheek aside, I found it disturbing on a more essential level.  Over some time now, there has been a lot of talk in our society about “family values”; how they seem to be slipping away and how we need to grasp them greedily and fold them back into our lives.  Well, Christmas for Christian, like Pesach for Jews, and Thanksgiving for all Americans, has traditionally been a bastion of family values living.  Traditionally, these have been times when families have moved heaven and earth, if necessary, to come together and be with each other.  The Christmas table, the Seder table, the Thanksgiving table, have been the sacred altars of reaffirming family life.  But as Christians as well as Jews flock to the Chinese restaurants and the movies on Christmas day, one cannot help but feel that once again the American family has taken a major hit.  The song says, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and not “I’ll Meet You at the Movies.  Make sure to get the popcorn and the pop.”  And this has saddened me, saddened me greatly, even though this is not my holiday.  For it is another victory for the secularization and the commercialization of Christmas; another defeat for what are supposed to be the essential messages of the holiday; another defeat for the spirituality of Christmas.

So as a Jew, why should I care?  After all, this is a Christian holiday.  I care because whenever the spiritual is defeated by the secular, we all suffer, whether we realize it or not.  As American Christians become more secular, so do American Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists, and you get the idea.  Regardless of our faiths, our various spiritualities are interconnected and interdependent.  Their defeat is our defeat and our defeat is theirs.  And in these defeats, we move further away from each other and further away from God.

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10 Comments on “Reflections on a Jewish Christmas”

  1. Alan Garfield Says:

    I loved your observations, Rabbi. You might be a NYer by birth, but your sensitivity to Midwestern values has clearly taken over. All I could think about, in reading your “Reflections on a Jewish Christmas” was how much in the spirit of Buber it was. Thanks and I look forward to reading more. Soon.

    • ravkarp Says:

      Thanks, Alan! Now I have to figure out how to put tags on the posting and get it out to the public. And thanks for all your help and for a wonderful evening last night!

  2. Rabbi Michael Samuel Says:

    Kudos on starting your website! I hope you post all of your thoughts on the issues of the day; your community is lucky to learn from your wisdom and wit!

  3. Barb Says:

    Twenty years ago I had friends who always celebrated Christmas Day by going to the movie since they didn’t have family in the country. At the time, it was unusual but you are right, it has become more of the norm now. Great first posting to your blog. Can’t wait to read the next one!

  4. Anne-Marie Hislop Says:

    The sad thing, Henry, is that for many, many Christians the faith aspects of the holiday are simply a veneer. Even many regular church attendees do not find time for the hour or so church service on Christmas Eve. One prominent couple I had in Davenport, life-long church members and leaders never came on that night because they had an open house from 3-6 and were ‘too tired’ afterward to come to church. Others come only on Christmas Eve (often to please spouse or parents), behave badly, barely participate, and plainly cannot wait to ‘get out of here.’I had an Iowa state rep who came to St. A every year (to please Mom, I’m sure)- behaved badly, and one year said “let’s get out of here” to his teenagers loudly enough for all to hear right at the end of singing “Silent Night” by candle light – at the end of a ONE HOUR service – one hour out of a whole holiday season. Grrrrr!

    I too am concerned about the apparently increasing lack of ability to be with and enjoy family and friends. Lately there has been a trend for stores to open on Thanksgiving Day – the one day in the year that the country really stopped and celebrated together. Folks who defended the move in online comments spoke of having something ‘to do’ while waiting for dinner to be ready or after they ate – as if being together, talking, playing games, taking a walk together, were not things ‘to do’ or not things they wanted to do. It’s very sad. At some points stores will have the hutzpah to open on Christmas Day (be prepared, you will probably get the blame for that, too) so that folks can ‘get a jump on their after Christmas shopping,’ but also so that there is ‘something to do’ on that day. Some of that ennui probably comes from unrealistic expectations about the holiday, about being with family, and about what the ‘good old days’ were like. Very sad!

    • ravkarp Says:

      Thank you, Ann-Marie for your thoughtful comment.
      Your accounts of people’s resistance to participating in Christmas Eve services is truly disturbing. You never see the “let’s get out of here!” during “Silent Night” or the “I’m too tired after partying to go to church” attitude portrayed in the movies. I guess at times the reality is far less warm and fuzzy than the cinematic ideal.
      I fear that you are absolutely correct about the days of all stores being closed for Christmas being numbered. I also fear that you are correct that when it happens, once again the Jews will be blamed for it, though in fact most of the merchandising outlets, like Walmart, are owned by Christians. But as Mark Twain once said, “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts!”
      Have a very Happy New Year!

  5. Mark Ridolfi Says:

    Welcome to the wonderful world of blogging. Not much different from the same thoughtful commentary you’ve provided for Times readers for years. Relax and let your fingers do the talking!


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