Sunday, December 24, 2006

Jews who celebrate Christmas?

An article appeared in the New York Times entitled: “Jewish in a Winter Wonderland.” The author describes how she and her husband, both Jews, decided to buy and decorate a Christmas tree this year. At first she blames the Pottery Barn catalog, for having such attractive decorations, then moves on to describe her Christmas Tree as subversive and rebellious.

Finally she makes the point that she and her husband want to celebrate Christmas not out of a secret desire to convert to Christianity, but because “the rampant commercialization of Christmas works! Like your kids who desperately want the toys they see advertised on TV, I wanted the monogrammed velvet stocking and my husband wanted the model train that goes around the tree and puffs the actual smoke.”

At the core, this author’s argument is that Christmas is about presents and pretty decorations, and for Jews to celebrate these twin values of beauty and materialism is not a problem. For her, Christmas is devoid of all Christian and religious meaning. However, the author does say that when she has kids, she and her husband would put away the tree.

All holidays, Jewish, Christian and even secular American holidays, have meaning behind them. On Hanukkah we eat latkes and light the menorah. These are wonderful traditions that are meant to remind us of the meaning of the day, that the Jews of 2000 years ago regained their religious freedom and forced the Greeks out of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. When we talk about the miracle of the oil that lasted for 8 days and sing songs about God and Jewish freedom, we acknowledge the true meaning of Hanukkah.

The same holds true of every holiday, even the secular American ones. We all know that July 4th is about American independence, even if we spend all day by the pool, eating barbecue, and watching fireworks. The meaning of a holiday remains visible to those who celebrate it, no matter how secular the symbols appear. To put up a Christmas tree is not just about beauty and materialism. The small fir is meant to remind its owner of the true meaning of Christmas, the day that Jesus was born. That is why the most common decoration for the top of the Christmas tree is an angel or star, which symbolizes the star of Bethlehem or angelic hosts which proclaimed the birth of Jesus.

I think Christmas is a wonderful holiday. It is just not a Jewish holiday. Nor is it a secular one. It is a holy day for Christians. Our goal should not be to decapitate holidays from their true meaning. Rather, we should celebrate them for what they are, days that have their own history, culture and religious importance.

To read New York Times article: “Jewish in a Winter Wonderland": Click Here


Anonymous said...

Christmas trees are not Christian, they predate Christianity. Christmas trees are pagan in origin. The pagans in the Black Forest of Germany used to put ornaments on trees to ward off evil spirits since in pagan culture it was believed that evil spirits were attracted to and dwelled within trees . Correspondingly, another pagan ritual that exists to this day is knocking on wood for good luck. The act is supposed to scare the evil spirits out of the wood. Carrying the bride over the threshold is another pagan act that has continued into Christianity. While many people many not be aware of this, Christmas trees, knocking on wood for luck and carrying the bride over the threshold are archaic rituals which predate most modern religions.

Rachel said...

I'm still processing my own reaction to that article, which I read in today's Sunday Times. But at this moment, I find myself thinking that perhaps the best way for a nice Jewish girl (or boy) to enjoy the pleasures of Christmas -- a decorated tree, the singing of carols, all that good jazz -- is to connect with a Christian relative or friend, and ask to be included. I can't imagine that anyone would refuse, and many people would probably be delighted.

When I was a little girl, I used to spend part of every Christmas with the boys across the street. I loved drinking cocoa beside their sparkly tree, and receiving a small gift to open, and listening to carols. By the same token, they often came to our house for Chanukah, and enjoyed latkes and the lighting of the chanukiyah and the singing of "Maoz Tsur." (They also joined us for seder at Pesach, a far more central observance.)

Being able to share holidays was so much fun, and it allowed me to feel rooted in my own traditions and enjoyably connected with theirs. I wish this were something that more of us felt able to do, even (or especially) as adults. A few years ago when a Christian minister (a friend of ours) joined us for seder, we found our experience enriched by the pleasure of explaining the rituals to him -- and he spoke movingly about how valuable it was for him to experience a seder in context.

Rather than co-opting somebody else's holiday celebration in a way that might not be authentic, why not use the holiday as an opportunity to connect with someone who really does celebrate it? I'll bet it would be more meaningful, for everyone involved; it would also strengthen the bonds of family or friendship, always a fine thing at any season.

Allyson said...

There are, in fact, lots of people in the world who celebrate Christmas without religious association. I am an atheist, and my parents raised me in a completely secular household. We always celebrate Christmas, but in a secular sense. We do play some traditional carols on the stereo, but our family does not observe any form of the Christian religion. We do not go to church or perform other acts of religious observation. For us people, Christmas is simply about being with family. Perhaps that doesn't make it Christmas in the literal sense, but it's a very special holiday for us, even if we don't go to church or decorate with stars and angels. Christmas has become a secular holiday in many ways, and there are definitely people out there who don't follow the religious aspect at all.

Anonymous said...

Coming from a Jewish backround, I'm sorry but I totally disagree. But I am just a child and I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Christmas!

Anonymous said...

I think this assessment of Christmas is flat-out wrong. I, for one, come from a BUDDHIST Chinese family, and we all love Christmas: it's a fun holiday, and an opportunity to reunite and share gifts.

Many, many families I know of (including Jewish ones!) treat Christmas in this way: as a heartwarming holiday that has nothing to do with Christianity. I don't think my mom even knows that Christmas is supposed to be Jesus' birthday!

Anonymous said...

yeah a xmas tree may be pretty but it's idolatry, avoda zara. Avoda Zara is a serious sin and Jews should not celebrate xmas. It's ridiculous. Read the Shema.

Stanford said...

I believe we all have a lot to learn from each other. As a fan of sociology/anthropology and as a devout Mormon, I love Christmas because of the family, the sharing, the giving, the spirit of love that pervades everything. I don't see the Christmas tree as idolotry, a sin that Mormons take very seriously as well, but more as a symbol of faith. The evergreen is a symbol of eternity, the decorations are symbols of perfection and beauty in the resurrection, the star is the guiding star of David to the birthplace of his celebrated decendant Jesus, who brought a message of hope, peace and love. The presents represent charity and compassion, and love and faith in the coming of a Messiah. These are values almost any peace loving religion can share. When our Messiah comes at last I look forward to our faith being united with the faith of our beloved Jewish and Muslim brothers as we usher in a new epoc of peace and goodwill. May our G-d bless you all this holiday season.

Anonymous said...

Yes. We're not living in the old times any more and traditions and the world around us do change. I love all of the Jewish holidays (except Yom Kippur and Passover because of the "dietary rules") but I love Christmas and Easter and all of the so-called "non-Jewish" holidays and I embrace all faiths and religions as well as secular holidays and traditions. After all, God made many trees instead of settling on just one great one and I love many different trees, not just one type that I might identify with more. It's the same as religion to me. We believe in peace, good will, charity, and treating others with kindness and generosity. That's what life and holidays are all about. Have a little faith!

Robert said...

The Christmas tree is called that for the christians, but the decorating of a tree can be made and adjusted to any belief quite easily, instead of a star or angel on top of the tree, the star of David could be there instead, and the decorations could be made with purpose, I believe the holidays and the decorating of a tree, can easily be a wonderful way for different beliefs to have something that they can all share.
And what the tree represents above all is hope, innocence, and peace.