As a longtime newspaper columnist, one of my favourite annual traditions has been to write about Christmas.
I’m an agnostic Jew, but I’ve celebrated this holiday since I was young. My wife and I purchase a tree each year, and decorate it with ornaments. There’s a wreath on the door, and other ones throughout our home. Garland is wrapped around the banister. Holiday music, both traditional and modern, can often be heard. My son excitedly opens up his presents on Christmas Day, although that goes without saying!
This year, I decided to write about Christmas for what could be my most unusual audience: CJN readers.
How would I tackle it, exactly? Most of you celebrate Chanukah, and I don’t. A few of you might have trees, ornaments and wreaths, but it wouldn’t be extensive. Some of the most popular Christmas songs were written by Jews, but that’s common knowledge.
So, I thought that I could address Christmas from different angles.
It would be interesting to examine early North American Jews and their positive feelings toward Christmas. As noted in Penne L. Restad’s Christmas in America: A History, an 1877 issue of the Philadelphia Times reported “the Hebrew brethren did not keep aloof” from Christmas, and that young Jewish children “were as happy… as Christian children” with the Christmas trees which “bloomed” in their homes.
Another possibility was to mention that Christmas, aside from its name, has pagan components. While Christmas trees date back to 15th- or 16th-century Germany, it also has a long association as a pagan symbol. It wasn’t until the 19th century, in fact, that North Americans accepted this long-honoured European tradition as their own.
My own family could make for a good column. To my parents’ credit, they both had tolerant attitudes about Christmas. My father had a little fake Christmas tree (or Chanukah bush, depending on the client) in his office. My mother never wanted to put one up, but she enjoyed looking at my tree and putting up ornaments.
I could also target the astonishing intolerance some Jews have about Christmas. You know, the sanctimonious feelings of supposed “confusion” during this time of year, being “left out” of the holiday mix, believing Christmas is “only” for Christians, or “hating” Jolly Old St. Nick, trees, lights, music, etc.
Then again, some Jews combine elements of Chanukah and Christmas for personal reasons, or because they’re in a mixed marriage, or otherwise. I saw a Star of David on a home in place of a wreath last year. There are Jewish ornaments specifically made for Christmas trees, and even full-sized Chanukah bushes/trees.
Hmm. What’s the best way to discuss Christmas with people who don’t, for the most part, celebrate this holiday?
Oh, wait. I know what to do.
Christmas isn’t just for Christians. It never has been, and it never will be. Rather, Christmas is a wonderful, beloved holiday that we can all enjoy in our own way. (For most Jews, it would likely be in a modern, non-religious manner.)
It’s important to have the freedom to celebrate any holiday, custom or tradition. Placing restrictions on a person’s enjoyment and teaching them that they can’t or shouldn’t participate in a specific religious/cultural event helps facilitate an environment of ignorance and intolerance. Is this what we really want?
Meanwhile, there are many benefits in exposing people to different religious customs and experiences. Obtuse hang-ups about Christmas would surely fall out of fashion. Religious holidays like Chanukah would become less of a mystery. A bit more tolerance and respect wouldn’t kill us, either.
Here’s what I would suggest: enjoy Chanukah, and the customs and traditions associated with it. But if your children express interest in singing Christmas carols, trimming a tree, and so forth, let them enjoy these traditions. Who knows? You might even learn to enjoy them, too.
Merry Christmas, everyone!