Jews and the Paradox of a Secular Christmas
by New Dealer
Every year the same messages come up on Facebook around the time the weather starts to cool on the East Coast. This is anywhere from mid-October to early November depending on the person. The posts turn my friends into eager puppies and they constantly ask when is it acceptable to start playing Christmas music, hang up Christmas decorations, put up the tree, and other quandaries. The Christmas music postings are the most interesting because there is a sense that it is really tacky to play Christmas Music before December but my friends also seem to really burst at the seams for the time when it is socially acceptable.
The phrase I heard for all this stuff is “Christmas Magic.” My friends who grew up celebrating Christmas seem to think that it is an amazing and enchanted lead up. Now many of my friends are also starting to have young children and my friends who celebrate Christmas go especially off a deep end during this time period with posts about the children’s first experiences with Santa. My Jewish friends with children do not seem to post as many starry eyed posts (if any) about celebrating Hannukah with their children. Perhaps I will see more posts when it is the time for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
Christmas Magic has always perplexed me as a Jewish person. I don’t understand why Christmas gets elevated over all other holidays and times of the year for being magical and special. I don’t quite understand why Santa and the Tree and the music seem to cause lots of excitement and cause almost every non-Jewish person I know to go off the deep end in anticipation. Christmas seems to be the holiday that even the most strident atheists want to celebrate. This year there was a campaign of posters on keeping the Christ out of Christmas and a series of essays on the joys of secular Christmas.
We did not celebrate Christmas growing up. We did not put up trees and decorations. We did celebrate Hannukah but with a lot less pomp and ceremony. Hannukah was always a very low-key celebration in my family and I always knew that the presents came from my parents. As we got older, the celebrations happened with less frequency and we maybe only lighted candles one the first night and did not exchange presents.
I was also lucky in that I grew up in a very Jewish suburb of New York City, which has a very high Jewish population growing up. There were more houses in my hometown without decorations than with decorations during Christmas. You can take your Judaism for granted if you grow up in the NYC-Metro area. This is not true of Jewish people who grow up in most other parts of the United States. A friend who grew up in upstate New York said that when he was a young child people would look at him like he was “something dirty” when he told well-meaning strangers that he did not celebrate Christmas. It took me until I was 22 until I had these arguments about why everyone should celebrate Christmas.
I sympathize with my friend from upstate New York. The hallmark of December seems to be that everyone should celebrate Christmas in a free society. This is infuriating, but it seems like people are more shocked someone does not want to celebrate even secular Christmas. No one would ever ask a Jewish person why they did not celebrate Easter even secular Easter with coloring eggs, egg hunts, and candy. However, there does seem to be a feeling that Jews should set their Judaism aside during this time and celebrate secular Christmas and the undecorated house is somehow an affront to the Christmas Magic feeling. In Tod’s post on the real war on Christmas and other places my stance has been called “defensive.” It seems to me the real defensiveness comes from the persistence that everyone should celebrate Christmas and those that don’t are somehow existential threats to the idea of Christmas Magic especially when Jews point out that it is still a holiday dedicated to the birth of the Christian Messiah.
This is not to say I dislike everything about the time. In New York City, farmers from New England and Canada come down with small pine and trees in early and mid December. One of the sellers used to set up shop on my path from the subway station to my grad school. I loved the scent of pine that would fill the air as I walked home in the cool air of late afternoon and early evening. However, this does not mean I need to put a Christmas tree in my apartment and decorate it. I can also enjoy egg nog and gingerbread cookies without going full out either and accept an invitation to a Holiday kafeklatch.
I have these questions for the non-Jewish readership of Ordinary Times. Why is secular Christmas so “magical” over all other times of the year? Why does it seem to be the one holiday where there is a seemingly moral and universal requirement to celebrate the secular version of the Holiday? What were your experiences with undecorated houses growing up and reactions to them? What are your stories about Jewish classmates or friends or acquaintances that did not celebrate the holiday. There clearly does seem to be some kind of affront that goes on when people see unadorned houses and hear that there are people who do not celebrate Christmas, my friend’s story about dirty looks is not an isolated incident. When I was 22, an Australian housemate could simply not accept my answer of “I’m Jewish” as why I did not celebrate Christmas and I do not think he was the most religious person in the world. Is it because Christmas is supposed to be such a time of unmitigated joy that any non-celebrant acts as a damper and a reminder that not everything is universal?