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The true meaning of Christmas for North American Jews

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Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

What is the true meaning of Christmas? This question is the topic of numerous Christmas sermons. To serious Christians, materialism has undermined Christmas, so the devout search for the true meaning of Christmas. But for North American Jews, Christmas creates other complications.

For Jews in medieval Europe, Christmas was a time of fear and loathing. During the year, the Jews were an embattled minority. On Christmas, Jews were absolute pariahs. The Chaumont Christmas play of the 1200s depicted Jews as true devils, and blood libels took place around Christmas multiple times in the 13th and 14th centuries. Christmas-related riots and pogroms continued into the modern era.

Relative to Europe, Canada and the United States have always been a refuge from anti-Semitism. But Jews found that acceptance creates new tensions. Public celebrations of Christmas challenged Jews to find inventive ways to fit in. Janice L. Booker recalls that in public schools in 1930s Philadelphia, the “unwritten, unspoken agreement among the Jewish kids was that when we sang the carols… we kept our lips sealed when the name of Jesus Christ was mentioned.”

How can you be Jewish and sing a Christmas carol? Just cut out part of the lyrics. This “solution,” which is neither here nor there, epitomizes the uneasiness Jews feel about Christmas. When December rolls around, Christmas is everywhere. There are “all Christmas” radio stations, Christmas decoration stores, and special Christmas flavours for coffee and doughnuts. Christmas is a holiday of the shopping mall, where Santa seems to be giving presents to everyone else but us. In response, Chanukah has played the role of an imitation Christmas for many Jews, with gift giving and maybe even a Chanukah bush. (The Maccabees, warriors against Hellenism, would not have been amused).

For deeply Orthodox Jews, the “December dilemma” is not a dilemma at all. Uninterested in cultural integration, they feel no need to concern themselves with someone else’s holiday. Christmas is ignored by the Orthodox world.

Jews have either ignored or imitated Christmas. Both reactions are flawed and defensive. Sadly, we have overlooked the true meaning of Christmas for Jews.

For North American Jews, the true meaning of Christmas is gratitude. We’re fortunate to live in countries that are havens for Jews, and where we’re fully accepted. Kippah-wearing Jews are no longer exotic outliers on national TV, and Jews have long played prominent and public roles in Canadian and American politics.

This acceptance goes beyond the pluralistic democratic principles of the United States and Canada. A religious revolution among Christians has changed attitudes toward Jews. Maimonides predicted 900 years ago that Christianity’s connection with the Jewish Bible would eventually bring Jews and Christians closer together. In North America, that prediction has come true. Christianity is no longer a force for anti-Semitism. Instead, some of the strongest supporters of Israel in Canada and the United States are evangelical Christians. They see philo-Semitism as an imperative of their faith. As one evangelical author put it: “Our heroes have always been Hebrews.”

Christmas should remind North American Jews to be grateful that we live in an era like no other in Jewish history, and we should share that gratitude with our Christian friends. Several years ago in an article in the New York Times, Jewish professionals told of how they cover shifts for their colleagues to enable them to celebrate Christmas at home. Dr. Robert van Amerongen, an Orthodox Jew who is director of pediatric emergency service at New York Methodist Hospital, told the newspaper that “although he is senior enough to be able to take Christmas off, he always works. ‘That just infuses goodwill,’ he said.”

Goodwill, which the Talmud calls “darchei shalom,” “ways of peace,” is something precious. And for Jews who live in peace in countries that practise the ways of peace, goodwill is the true meaning of Christmas.