Being a Jew At Christmas Time

[I wrote this article in 1992, fully 28 years ago, but just came across it again, and decided to reproduce it here, just as it was written. I offer it as a not-too-heavy, not-too-long, and really-rather-enjoyable, piece of reading for this season – one of the better things that I have done. I do have a few afterthoughts that I have appended at the end, although, overall, I was amazed at how little things have changed.] 

Thank my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Schneider, for my introduction to Christmas. As public-school teachers go, she was, I gather, something of a religious fanatic. Among other things, she held gospel-study classes in students’ homes every Wednesday after school (this was Canada in the 1950s, when it was genuinely a Christian country). I will never forget the day I sat on my front porch watching some 20 or so of my classmates following Miss Schneider into the home of my neighbor and best friend, just two doors down from me. Joining the class was the thing to do and I couldn’t do it; I was Jewish. To be sure, with what can only be described as conversionary zeal, Miss Schneider tried regularly to remedy my religious status, a project that prompted my parents to remove me from her classroom by February. But in December, I was still a Schneider ward. And that is where I encountered Christmas.

            I was later to find out, however, that when it came to Christmas, all my teachers were more or less Miss-Schneider clones. Every year, as Autumn slipped steadily into winter, even the most humanly sensitive and open-minded teachers became carried away by the spirit of what we now call, euphemistically, “the Holiday Season.” By early November, the classroom had already been turned into a swiftly accelerating vehicle for welcoming Christmas. By late November, we had heard the Christmas story several times over. Red and green decorations floated lazily down from ceilings and doorways. A large decorated tree outfitted the main hall, and a smaller one greeted visitors entering the principal’s office. In art class, you painted Christmas scenes; in English class, you composed Christmas stories; in music, you sang Christmas carols. A huge schoolwide Christmas assembly, followed by a gala Christmas party, marked the end of the first semester, but everybody returned at night when the school’s crack choir presented its annual Christmas concert.

            As welcome as I was in my country, there were certain times when I suspected that as a Jew, I didn’t quite fully belong. Heading up the list of such times was the annual Christmas fever that swept through almost everyone else, but passed me by. None of the Jews in my town kept any Christmas customs in those days. The close-knit Jewish community, tiny enough to know everybody else’s business, would have looked askance at such a thing. A Christmas tree, for instance, would have been viewed as one step short of apostasy. In larger communities though, a small minority of Jews did decorate their own trees, hang stockings and give gifts. It seemed the Canadian, if not the Jewish, thing to do.

            It was, and still is, no picnic explaining to your children that we Jews don’t keep Christmas. They stare at you in disbelief. Everyone keeps Christmas, they plead. It is the topic of every television program, the display in every store window. Here in New York, The Radio City Music Hall features its annual Christmas spectacle and the Metropolitan Museum of Art displays Christmas artifacts. What do you mean, “We don’t celebrate Christmas”? Does that make us the Grinch? Maybe Scrooge?     

            Once, when my children were young, a well-meaning babysitter, looking to be creative, helped each child assemble a tiny Christmas tree, made of colored paper, cellophane, and fallen branches collected from the wintry outdoors. The children beamed at us with glee when we came home. What does a Rabbi’s family do with their children’s ready-made, personally constructed Christmas trees? Certainly not call them Hanukkah bushes and compound the sin of syncretism, doing injustice is both Judaism and Christianity at the same time. Patiently, quietly, and with all the love we could muster, we explained to our children that as much as we adored the work of their hands, the trees had to go. We were Jews; Christmas trees were for Christians; it would be wrong for us to have them – – wrong because it was false to Judaism, and wrong because it made light of Christmas. Hanukkah was important for Jews; Christmas was sacred for Christians. 

            Another year, Nick, our neighbor across the way, came to the door to announce his plans to show up in everybody’s living room on Christmas eve dressed in a Santa Claus suit. Did we want to be included in his list of stops? The kids would love it, he assured us. We thanked him, but reminded him we were Jews. He knew that, but explained how lots of Jews would be on his list. What does a religious commitment of Judaism have to do with keeping or not keeping Christmas? For that matter, what does Christmas have to do with Christianity? For Nick, as for his Jewish takers, Christmas is just a fun time with music, parties, and wishes for world peace. Go argue with that. Scrooge indeed!    

            For Jews like me who take Judaism seriously, however, that is not what Christmas is. It is a feast on the Christian calendar celebrating the incarnation of the son of God. I take seriously the religious significance Christmas has (or should have) for Christians. Since I’m not a Christian, it is self-evident to me that I cannot observe the occasion in my home– not in good conscience, anyway –even though life would be a lot simpler if I could.

            Historians tell us that Christmas was not always the cultural fulcrum that balances Christian life. There was a time when Christians knew that the Paschal mystery of death and resurrection was the center of Christian faith. It was Easter that really mattered, not Christmas. Only in the consumer-conscious nineteenth and twentieth centuries did Christmas fully become the centerpiece of popular piety. Madison Avenue marketed the change and then colluded with the entertainment industry to boost Christmas to its current calendrical prominence.

            My Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which falls about the same time as Christmas, is now being hyped as a sort of Jewish equivalent – – as in “Hanukkah bushes.” It doesn’t matter when Hanukkah falls. Since it is pegged to the Hebrew calendar, it may occur anytime from late November to late December. Regardless of which it is, people wish me a happy holiday around December 25, as if all real holidays ought to happen then.

            I have kindled Hanukkah candles happily and beautifully all my life. Some of my fondest family memories consist of standing with my arms around my children as we sang Hanukkah songs in the flickering candlelight. But the religious part of me regrets the fact that fewer and fewer Jews observe the High Holy Days, Shabbat, and even Passover (which used to weigh in as everyone’s favorite), while more and more identify Judaism as a gift-giving cult centered on Hanukkah. In any event, the Hanukkah hype won’t work. It may sell merchandise, and even inspire Peter Paul and Mary to write “Light One Candle” – – a terrific song by the way – – but it won’t make Hanukkah into a Jewish version of Christmas, and it won’t address the alienation of so many Jews who genuinely like the Christmas they see and feel all around them, the Christmas that they cannot fully share.

            Where I live now, Christmas starts officially at the end of November, with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Cities outside of New York schedule their own parades then, but Macy’s version typifies the genre. It takes no semiotic genius to get the message. The parade route winds down Broadway following its own yellow brick road to the shopping Mecca on Herald Square. Bringing up the rear, but leading the way for the folk who follow the official parade route, is Santa Claus, who will soon reappear daily at malls around the country promising goodies to good little children.

            I am no Scrooge. I like Santa Claus too. I like the Christmas music – – even the bad music – – that surrounds the Santa ritual; I like the crisp winter weather, and the bell ringers, and all the rest of the paraphernalia that make most people look forward to December 25. I like my neighbors’ wreaths and the mistletoe, and above all, the genuinely religious Christmas carols that you can hardly hear anymore because they have been replaced by soppy songs that melt down the Christian message of this holy day as quickly as snow in a heat wave. Great music is great music, after all. I enjoy it.

            It is, in fact, my liking (or not liking) of Christmas that constitutes the key to the role of Christmas in American culture. By contrast, I neither like nor dislike Easter, just as I have no opinion of, say, Ramadan. As a Jew I naturally evaluate my own holidays, but I feel no compulsion to appraise the sacred calendars of others. Christmas is an exception to this rule. American mores expect me, even as a non-Christian, to welcome Christmas as a positive good in my life. Not to appreciate the Christmas spirit is considered a cultural sin. Why is that?

            I have in mind three manifestations of Christmas in popular culture. The first two are modern-day fairy tales depicting the ultimate triumph of good over evil: the Broadway hit, Annie, and what was billed (when it came out) as “the summer movie of all time,” Batman Returns. To say that both have been box-office bonanzas is to be guilty of understatement. They obviously touch something very deep in our collective cultural psyche.

            In both, Christmas appears as a symbol of the myth of American virtue. The Batman theme is simple and direct: the forces of good arrayed against the forces of evil. Unlike real life, however, from beginning to end, and no matter how bad things appear in the middle, not a soul in the movie theater has any doubt about who the final victor will be. It is only a matter of time until Batman wins and Penguin loses. And at the end, the protagonist lives happily ever after. That is the nature of fairy tales. They portray things as we wish they were, not as they are. They may be absolutely ghoulish in the hideous trials to which the heroes are exposed, but in the end, Cinderella marries the Prince, Little Red Riding Hood escapes the wolf, Hansel and Gretel don’t get baked in the oven, and Batman restores order to Gotham city.

            What makes Batman interesting, for our purposes, is the fact that the hero is portrayed against the backdrop of Christmas. The entire movie is set in the Christmas season. In his last line of the film, Batman links his own success at foiling the Penguin with the underlying theme of Christmas. “Merry Christmas,” he says, “and goodwill toward men – – and women.” Christmas thus functions as a cultural trope for the way we wish things were, or, better yet, the way we like to pretend things already are. In the actual world, bad things really do happen to good people; real life Penguins do prowl our land. The goodwill quotient measured in the absence of ethnic, racial, and religious rivalries is rather low right now. But the myth of Christmas allows us to put aside untidy evidence from newspaper headlines and to believe instead that all is right in Gotham. Christmas stands symbolically for a secular version of redemption: Jesus doesn’t save, Batman does. If evil has been eradicated, it must be Christmas, goes the logic, as in fact it is in Batman Returns.

            The evidence from Annie is even more transparent. Annie is an orphan who is adopted by Daddy Warbucks. Along the way, evil raises its ugly head in the shape of the manager of the orphanage and her brother, who, in effect, kidnap Annie by posing as her parents. But in the end, their scheme fails, and Annie returns to her wealthy benefactor. As in BatmanAnnie too has been written so that it culminates in Christmas. In the very last scene, not only Annie, but all the other orphans too celebrate a lavish party in Daddy Warbucks’s mansion. If Batman is the message of good conquering evil in general, Annie is the application of that message to American values in particular. Daddy Warbucks is a self-made man, a shining example of what hard work and business enterprise will get you. Never mind the fact that he made his money as a war profiteer – – the play passes silently over the significance of his name, “Warbucks.” The point is that Daddy made it on his own. He hobnobs with FDR and the White House crowd, gets J. Edgar Hoover to unleash the FBI in the search for Annie, and lives the life of luxury that is the stuff of the American dream. But the message of Annie is precisely that those dreams can come true, if only we are hard-working and virtuous. Annie, after all, escapes the orphanage.

            Again, we are dealing with pure myth. In real life, almost no one is self-made anymore. When Anniecame out, it is true, Wall street millionaires abounded and law firms were hiring first-year graduates at astronomical salaries. But most of America was getting poorer, not richer. Homelessness on a scale unknown since the Great Depression was about to become the norm for millions. Nonetheless, Annie told us confidently that even the poorest orphan could become a Warbucks heir. American capitalism triumphed once again. 

            In Annie, Christmas functions artistically not simply as the embodiment of moral victory but as a potent symbol for material success. The last scene focuses on munificent gift-giving. There is absolutely nothing spiritual about the day. No one sings Silent Night, let alone Adeste Fideles; the birth of the Savior is the farthest thought from anyone’s mind. Christmas, pure and simple, is nothing but the myth of endless American wealth born of capitalist entrepreneurship. The myth of secular redemption has reached its pinnacle.

            To Batman and Annie, add the third piece of evidence: Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote his masterpiece precisely at the time that Christmas was becoming the cultural focus of the secular year. England had prospered from the Industrial Revolution, where, once again, the myth of capitalism was wrapped up in the tinsel of Christmas packaging. In reality, the terrors of the time are readily apparent from almost every page of every book that Dickens wrote. But not here. The capitalist myth merges with Christmas, as secular redemption allows Tiny Tim and his family to be saved from poverty (not from sin) and celebrate (a secular feast, not a sacred one) with Christmas plenty donated by none other than Scrooge himself. In his pre-repentant days, Scrooge is the very antithesis of the benevolent capitalist ideal. He is a rich man like Daddy Warbucks, but he hordes his wealth and despises the poor. Naturally, he despises Christmas too. But in the end, he is converted. Christmas is the symbol of good will in general, gift-giving in particular, and the triumph of the nineteenth-century pure capitalist ethic as a general good for one and all.

            I now understand my own Christmas dilemma. Christmas has been secularized, capitalized, and mythologized. As most people keep it, and certainly as popular culture presents it, it is the myth of the America we all pretend we inhabit: a place where Penguins are foiled, Annies are adopted, and even the poorest among us celebrate the wealth that comes from good old-fashioned hard-working industry. Not to observe Christmas is to blow the whistle on the myth, to expose such naked realities as a trickle-down economy where nothing trickles down, in a country rife with social ills and economic deprivation.

            The problem is that even in its secularized form, Christmas is not religiously neutral. It is still Christian. So as a Jew, I am in a bind. I am naturally attracted to Christmas as mythic wish fulfillment, marked by smiling Santas, festive parties, and gifts for everyone. At its secular best, it is at least one day in the year when we remember what we still might be: peaceful people infused with goodwill toward all; and a generous country, where everyone has a dinner to sit down to: heady stuff! But my conscience rebels against adopting what is still, for me, a Christian feast with a Christian message. There may be two Christmases here, the age-old religious celebration and the modern secular one. But they are not easily separated. Religious Christians may well be uneasy about the triumph of the secular variety, but at least they don’t have to worry about toggling back-and-forth between the secular and religious landscapes. They can enjoy the American myth that the secular holiday presents and, simultaneously, observe the religious event for which Christmas was formulated in the first place. That is a luxury I cannot afford.

Fortunately, along with most other Jews I know, I’ve come to terms with our Christmas dilemma. By no means do I yearn to celebrate Christmas. As the public pomp and ceremony becomes somewhat overwhelming, I slip into the role of a visitor to a foreign culture. I appreciate, even enjoy, much of the Christmas ambience; I share my Christian neighbors’ happiness, as they share mine when my holidays roll around. The academic part of me wonders how the religious message of Christmas got so overwhelmed by a secular mythology, and the religious part of me feels a little sorry that it happened that way. There are Jews who keep a Passover Seder, but with no idea that the event has any spiritual significance beyond families getting together. There is nothing wrong with family gatherings, but the life of faith is impoverished if the Passover meal is no longer rooted in the religious verities that have animated it through the centuries. I imagine the same must be true of Christmas for Christians. There is nothing wrong with sleighbells, Bing Crosby, and Christmas pudding, but I should hope Christians would want more than just that, and as Christmas comes more and more secularized, I am not sure they get it.

            In the end, the problem of Christmas is not mine, any more than Christmas itself is. The real Christmas challenge belongs to Christians: how to take Christmas out of the secularized public domain and move it back to the religious sphere once again.

Afterward: Looking back from 2020

1.  I am amazed at how the economic problems of 1992 have only worsened with time. Back then, “millionaires abounded on Wall Street” while “homelessness on a scale unknown since the Great Depression was about to become the norm.” Now, “millionaires” are “billionaires”; homelessness in 1992 was nothing compared to 2020. In 1992, I described “the goodwill quotient measured in the absence of ethnic, racial, and religious rivalries“ as “rather low.” That “goodwill quotient” is a thousand times worse today. I regret, especially, that I failed to specify racism, in particular, as an evil that devastates America. 

2. I fear the original wrongly paints me as an opponent of capitalism. I actually applaud capitalism, as an economic system. The problem lies with the selfish ethic that can accompany it, buttressed by a sort of “Ayn Rand” philosophy that says we all get what we deserve, so that those with privilege need take no responsibility for those without it. 

3.  I did not adequately express my actual ambivalence with the “cultural” Christmas round about me. On the one hand, I deplore the false promise of the secular myth where everything works out and everyone is saved by the likes of Daddy Warbucks, Batman, and a repentant Scrooge. On the other hand, I enjoy very much even the secularized spirit of hope that maybe, just maybe, things can get better. 

4.  Over time, I have come more and more to enjoy being a visitor in homes where Christmas is celebrated, and not just religiously. I remain convinced of the tragic loss entailed by religious holidays so fully secularized that they lose their religious depth. But I made too light of the secularized version which itself is not necessarily without spiritual value. 

2 responses to “Being a Jew At Christmas Time

  1. Dear Professor Hoffman
    As usual, your words are thought provoking and insightful. I hear my story in yours and your post script. There is much we can enjoy in Christmas.
    It is for the Christians to reclaim the religious celebration and meaning, or as the religious marketers have said, to put the Christ back in Christmas.
    The dual Christmases that exist can be a good thing. For we who do not embrace the religious one, we still have the gift of the secular one. Sweeping away the crass promotion associated with it, we find underneath the jewel that is a message of peace, hope, and love. As a Christian friend put it, Christmas is The Gift of these things given by God. This holiday is an opportunity to bring these sentiments to all willing to embrace it. I am willing to live in the tension that is created by my being a Jew in this space; the gift is worth it.

  2. Thanks for re-posting and revisiting this piece, Rabbi. I discovered it on the internet several years ago and re-read every year at about this time. It has held up well, I believe, but I love your updated thoughts as well. Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2021.

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