When Christmas Becomes Jewish

When Christmas Becomes Jewish

“So when do you think we might be able to get rid of the Christmas Tree? It’s taking up an entire shelf in the garage,” my wife gently pressed me, easily for the third time. It was December 10th and we had no plan for erecting our plastic imitation evergreen. Our boxes full of dangling tinsel and tacky shelf ornaments, piled upon one another, were likewise undisturbed, and were likely to remain that way. Neither had moved since 2020, so her question was valid: Why do we have half a garage full of Christmas decorations?

“Can we just hold off for now? Maybe next year?” I responded nervously, avoiding the real question entirely. We had no Christmas planned, at least not like most Christians do, and the day would likely come and go with little pomp and circumstance. The only way that it even formally enters our calendar is it overlaps with the seventh night of Hanukkah this year, the religious holiday that our family not only celebrates, but injects time and money into ensuring its memorability. But, still, the Christmas decorations remain. Let’s deal with them next year.

My ambivalent relationship to Christmas is not an uncommon Jewish response. I come from a mixed family background, I am half ethnically Jewish, yet grew up with basically no Judaism and we defaulted to an active life in our small town Presbyterian church. This meant, more than anything, an enthusiastic descent into all things Christmas, something beginning mere hours after Thanksgiving dinner and persisting well into the following year. But nearly a decade after my parents have passed, the secularized Christianity of my upbringing has been replaced by a relatively involved Jewish religious life, anchored by home-bound traditions and the (incredibly busy) Jewish calendar. Starting on the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev, we begin to light the candles and tell the story of the oil they represented. We have stripped out, and replaced, most of those earlier religious staples with ones that feel more meaningful and present, committing fully to fast days, Purim parties, and exhaustingly long seders. Except for one day. Christmas remained.

That is because, for all intents and purposes, I am a Christmas superfan. I know most Christmas films by heart, I could sing carols to you in their original Norwegian script, and I have nearly four dozen hand crafted German Nutcrackers. I have a savings account that is exclusively for Christmas shopping, and I “tithe” an embarrassing number of months to support extravagant gift giving. I like Christmas.

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So as our years became increasingly Jewish, and Hanukkah became a mark on our calendar, Christmas naturally remained on the year cycle. “It’s not that I hate Christmas. It’s just that I’m really into Judaism,” my wife joked as she tried to tug a nativity scene from my hands. She had a point, though, Hanukkah is not exactly commiserate with Christmas. As much as our culture demands a certain conformity in our shared “holiday season,” Hanukkah has little to do with peace on earth or goodwill towards man. The story is, instead, about the struggle to fight assimilation and the erasure of distinctiveness, which tries to remake Jews in the image of those who dominate them.

The Israelite Temple was taken over by the Seleucid Empire, where Antiochus forbade the practice of Judaism and its sacred covenant (circumcision), ordered for the Temple to be refashioned for the worship of Zeus, and sacrificed non-kosher animals (treyfa), swine, on the altar. This was just one moment in a long political war for the sovereignty of the Israelites, and the Maccabees, a militant sect of religious zealots (who likewise killed the first assimilationist Jew to follow Antiochus’ order), were simply not going to take it anymore. They prepared for a guerilla attack, eradicated their enemies through brutal acts of bloodshed, and went about reconsecrating the Temple to erase the “Hellenization,” the influence of Greek pagan culture on Jews. During that reconsecration the oil they needed for the arcane rituals lasted for eight nights instead of one, hence the miracle we talk so much about (yet is a side note to the story). This is followed by the re-establishment of the Second Jewish Commonwealth in 142 BCE and recognition of some degree of Jewish sovereignty in 139 BCE, then followed by attacks, sieges, and other unceasing threats to Jewish autonomy. The war for Jewish self-hood continues.

Hanukkah is primarily about the declaration of Jewish unsameness: Judaism is different, we live in different ways with different traditions and we commit to maintaining this distinctiveness across the centuries. As a stubborn and “stiff necked” people, that strangeness is so persistent that it survives pogroms and expulsions, compulsive conversions and historic dispossessions. Philosopher Bernard Harrison places this as the reason for antisemitism: no matter who is trying to remake the world, Jews refuse that change, they demand to remain themselves. This is why we are commanded to light the hanukiah (which is often confused with the menorah) and place it in our window, a light that projects out into the world, signifying pride in Jewish identity and sharing its illumination with our neighbors. The Talmud says that the hanukiah light should be used for nothing other than broadcasting Jewishness, you can neither read by it nor use it to light the room. Casting a light for the nations is sufficient enough.

Hanukkah is certainly not a new holiday, it began to be practiced soon after the successful uprising in 164 BCE described in the Maccabean chronicles, and then was dispersed around the world with the Jews after the destruction of that same Temple in 70 CE. But it was a largely minor holiday for most of Jewish history, until the 20th Century, when the overt commercialization of Christianity created a nearly dire situation for Jewish parents. All around their community their schoolmates had this fun, consumer holiday complete with elfen Odin figures and fancy cocktails, and what did we have? Arcane stories about Israelite militancy? This was the process when Judaism was forced to respond, refashioning Hanukkah into a gift-giving holiday (one for each of its eight nights), and to act as the slightly quirky counterpart to Christianity. (Zionism likewise played a role in the adoption of Hanukkah, but that’s another story.)  This Christmasization of Hanukkah has profoundly changed the holiday, but actually celebrating Christmas, tree and all, is a step too far for many.

The process we have undergone in redeveloping Hanukkah is not dissimilar to the same Hellenization that enraged the Maccabees so severely. Our holiday has conformed into a broad “Season’s Greetings” model that is, by definition, based on Christian Christmas traditions, and Jews are simply along for the ride. The defining features of the holiday have been altered to match this Christian norm, so much so that you can find Hanukkah wreaths, holiday lights, shelf decorations, all next to the Christmas adornments, the only difference being a bluish tint and nominal Jewish symbols. This assimilation process was central to what became known as the early Reform movement, which sought to integrate Judaism into a more modern framework of Western countries, but often adapted in familiar pieces of Christian churches, like music and sermons. The Central and Western European Jews were often more affluent, and in some ways assimilated, than their radical, shtetl dwelling Eastern European co-religionists, and that meant Christmas was not an uncommon celebration for upstanding Jewish families. Scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem, not known for his enthusiastic celebration of Christianity, grew up in a Christmas observing house, and the Christmas tree became introduced into Jewish homes, a tradition that continued even into the households of the most ardent Zionists (who many might expect to deride assimilationist tendencies). While we understand that it is Christmas forcing trees into homes, Jews could also take some comfort in the fact that Israelites venerated trees since the times of Torah, such as the Levitical prohibition on eating the fruit of a tree in its first three years or the demand to protect trees during wartime.

This is all part of a long process of “philosemitism,” the performative celebration of Jewishness that occurs in America all while validating Jewishness only in as much as it assimilates to the larger Christian (and white) norm. Our “Judeo-Christian” civilization is little more than a Christian civilization that uses Jews as props, and we are allowed to participate as long as we figure out how our traditions can fit into that Christian mold. Over the years this has radically changed Jewish practice in the U.S., part of the process of assimilating Jewish communities, conservatizing them and often erasing some of the key aspects that made Jewish tradition unique in the first place. This required Jewish participation, to some degree, just as the Hellenizing process in Judea was not simply compelled from above, but led by some Jews who also demanded Jews assimilate to the surrounding culture. Maybe the Hellenizers won after all.

For the last several generations, Jews, often young and increasingly radical, have bucked this trend, re-establishing Jewish tradition in ways that mark them as clearly apart from their Christian surroundings: rebuilding Jewish schools, integrating Hebrew language education, engaging in more elaborate and complicated Jewish rituals, returning to halakha and kashrut, and other forms of non-Christian weirdness that makes Judaism such a meaningful road for those for whom it speaks. The pushback against the encroachment of Christian assimilation, of Christmas itself, into Jewish life is a part of the assertion that Jewish tradition is valuable in its own right, not just as an adjunct to a dominant zeitgeist that prefers only one type of religious identity. This is exactly the process of disassimlation familiar to my own family, so it serves to reason that we would light the candles rather than capitulate to a Christmas holiday that has been used as a tool for Jewish erasure.

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But where does this place my feelings about Christmas? There is a certain trend in Jewish philosophy, such as amongst mystical writings or even the Pittsburgh Platform of the Reform movement, that suggests Jews are Jews partially because they are embedded amongst non-Jews. This is what makes us a “light to the nations”: we have to be amongst the nations if we are to cast the light. The Chanukah lights will, as Rabbi Sholom DovBer of the Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic dynasty said,  “refine and spiritualize even the domain of multiplicity,” to project this spiritual energy out into the world beyond Jews. “The human soul is a divine lamp," reads Proverbs 20:27, a reminder that the hanukiah is made in our own image, its purpose to raise the sparks of others, to act as a tool of connection between communities and towards a potentially elevated future. The fact that Jews are embedded amongst non-Jews means that we have always had some relationship with Christmas because we have had some constant relationship with those who celebrate it. Even if observed through passive annoyance, our lives quite literally pass through the glow of Christmas lights, we have eggnog shoved down our throat, we have to deal with the holiday rush at the grocery store on December 24th. The dramatic imprint that Christmas leaves on the lives of Jews is felt so acutely that it becomes a central piece of this month’s calendar, our lives are radically affected by it, its consequences unmistakable. So the fact that we desperately try to hold onto our own tradition, going so far as rebuilding our own holidays in its image, has not stopped us from being a part of the Christmas constituency.

Jews have as long a history with Christmas as Christians do, even holding historic communal rituals to get us through the season. On Christmas Eve, seemingly pious Jews historically abstained from the reading of Jewish literature, a process called nittel nacht (they didn’t even want to say the word Christmas), which also prescribed avoiding sex and large Jewish events. These traditions emerge less out of Jewish piety and are more a way to avoid the suggestive Jesus-centric messianism the holiday projects or as an attempt to divert potential pogroms from the nearby Christians, now whipped up into an ecstatic frenzy in observing the birth of a savior the rotten Jews would later crucify. This is why nittel nacht may be even less complimentary than it seems: the term nittel associates with the reference to Jesus as the “hanged man,” they avoid reading Torah that night for fear that it could be read as a celebration of Jesus (they played cards instead), and the sexual prohibition was out of concern that any child conceived from such union might convert. They ate garlic in an effort to fight off the demons who would surely be on the prowl that night. One piece of folklore warned children to avoid entering the lavatories on Christmas Eve for fear that fetid, creeping Jesus lurked in the sewer, ready to pull them in. Some broke with the tradition of nittel nacht and joined a private study of Toledot Yeshu, a medieval tract that retold the story of Jesus without the Christian assertions of messianic divinity and instead painted him as an illegitimate sorcerer and womanizer who descended to a final death after a disgraceful life.

Assimilating American Jews, however, began to have some more positive “alternative” Christmas events, such as the “Matzoh Balls,” festive Christmas evening parties Jews could join so Christians didn’t have all the fun. Perhaps the best known and most replicated Jewish Christmas tradition is eating Chinese food, often because Chinese restaurants are one of the few establishments still open and not itself mired by overt holiday associations (going to the movies is similarly observed). The tradition seems to have begun at the close of the 19th Century on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan, though the first reference to the practice was in 1936 when the American Hebrew lambasted this apparent violation of kosher dietary regulations. This may be surprising because according to rabbinic commentaries on kashrut, Chinese may be safer than, for example, Italian cuisine with its partnering of dairy and meat. Likewise, as Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut elucidates, since the treyfa was often disguised in Chinese food, flexible Jews declared it fair game. All it took was for Chinese food to become an established pattern, eventually lodging in the collective Jewish consciousness as a tradition, and thereby giving it a kind of ritualistic reverence. Jewish traditions are not only celebrated due to their halakhic requirements. So many of the practices that bind Israel together are nominally secular, yet likewise important. When rituals are placed into repetition, and they are aligned with experiences of familial joy, they can inspire a significance that might as well be labeled a mitzvot

For many Jews, these “alt-Christmas” traditions may be amongst their best family memories: people may be on a break from work and school, the family may already have gotten together, and so Christmas becomes a day where familial bonding remains possible. It matters little that the 25th is not significant on the Jewish religious calendar, it de facto becomes a space where everyday life has been suspended and chesed can resume.

Many have suggested that this Jewish Christmas is rather superficial, but this ignores what these holidays are for most people who participate. The blackout dates create an abnormally festive moment, and it matters little that for Jews it centers on Chow Mein rather than a Christmas tree. Jewish Christmas has become such a part of the season that Chinese takeout is usually added to lists of seasonal traditions. (A photo is often passed around on social media of a sign in a Chinese restaurant saying that while the proprietor did not understand the Jewish propensity for eating Chinese on Christmas, they appreciated the business.) This “parallel-Christmas” fortifies the universality of the holiday season by creating an enthusiastic pathway for Jewish participation without demanding us to give up what the Macabees fought so hard for. The Jewish compulsion towards Christmas has even given them a central role in the color and performance of the holiday, from the authors of famous carols to the mall-Santa-industrial complex. The artificial tree occupying valuable shelf space in my garage? Introduced by a Nazi-killing Jew, my favorite kind.

Since Hanukkah overlaps with Christmas this year, that “Judaization” of the event is even easier. We have a jam packed week: what those Jews who “Christmasized” Hanukkah didn’t realize is that eight full festival days is a lot to plan. Amongst our various concerts and candle lighting events is a Christmas Eve party, hosted by my in-laws and acting as one of the few opportunities for an aging, and disparate, collection of family to convene in one place. After two years of pandemic-inspired apartness, the holiday may simply be an excuse to finally share space, mending a divide that has formed in families across the world. For my wife and I, this holds additional opportunities. After saying havdalah on the 24th, signifying the close of shabbat, we will run across town to set up our joint Hanukkah-Christmas party, where we will join their “white elephant” exchange before lighting the sixth candle and telling them the story of the oil. Without Christmas it's doubtful we would have been provided the platform to share the miracle, the primary mitzvot Hanukkah demands, and yet we will participate without abandoning the distinction that compels us. While preparing for Hanukkah we eventually wrote up a plan for Christmas as well, which includes local take-out and a horror movie marathon,which is not altogether different from what we loved about the Christmas of our childhood. The purpose was always to build up traditions that felt authentic to our needs, to anchor our year to ritual. And we have successfully done that in the same way Jews always have: we worked with the world we have and seek to make it our own.

We will likely give away the Christmas tree. But Christmas itself remains in our pocket, something we can do in such an uncompromising type of way that it can’t help but match our expectations. It’s a Jewish day because we’re Jews, and with no current way to escape the season, we instead have the calendar marked to make our own. I might even set up the Nutcrackers next to the hanukiah.

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