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One year ago on my 39th Christmas I marked becoming a Jew as the most famous holidays of my two traditions collided. Chanukah and Christmas overlapped during my Jewish conversion, a riveting coincidence that underscored the tension between the two worlds I was bridging. That bit of scheduling fate helped me transition, but what was it that I was feeling and letting go about Christmas? What does Christmas even mean?
This year Christmas fell during not only a pandemic but the worst outbreak so far in Southern California. My parents and my sister share not just a property but a susceptibility, and I stayed home in Palm Springs with my roommate. It was my first Christmas without family in 10 years, and my first since my conversion in October. The holiday was separate, the year was separate, and Chanukah came and went without overlapping with Christmas at all, ending a full week before. This felt symbolic.
And Chanukah was lovely, though truly lonely. Last year I had community Shabbat, fun events, candle-lighting the first night with Ikar, candle-lighting with my family, and even visiting a synagogue near San Diego. This year, I was again the only Jew in the house, separated from my tribe by pixels and plastic, tiny avatars as grainy reminders that we are still connected somehow in the darkness. And that darkness was stark: mass-death like this country has never seen, Nero golfing while the economy burns, and a slow-motion fascist coup through it all. The literal darkness: it’s my first and only winter in Palm Springs, where one of the steepest mountain rises in North America (sea level to 10,000 feet in a few miles, to our west) means sunset abruptly at 3:45pm with no light waning. Just boom, you’re in shadow. It’s not really a sunset; you miss all the colors and transitions of the horizon, like the sun just quits all of a sudden, hiding out from all this collective anguish.
Snaps from Chanukah 5780 (2019)
A lot has been written about the otherness of being Jewish at Christmastime; this isn’t about that. It’s about letting go of Christmas a bit, the resistance there, and why. I love Christmas, and loving Christmas doesn’t just go away, especially after 40 Christmases. But I find myself embarrassed to have such a hard time with my love of Christmas. What do I need to let go of, if anything, and why?
Christmas isn’t a religious holiday for my family or nearly everyone I know. It doesn’t need to be religious, though, to be a part of larger Christian culture that has preyed upon Jews and minority and native populations here and across the world. We have secular Christmas because of colonialism and genocide, period. It’s a part of a larger tradition that says that even celebrating Christmas in a “secular” way is still superior to any other religion, or no religion at all.
Of course, the resistance to a larger sacred or watered-down secular culture is precisely what Chanukah is about! Though Judaism survived in tact (with many modifications to structure, law, and prayer), the later, early-Christian-Jewish cult that fled persecution in Jerusalem then survived by persecuting us. This became increasingly pointed and easier as Christianity spread by royal decree and by bloodshed, until Christians were no longer descendants of Jews. And Jews, in the view of the church, had killed God. We were other, we were wicked, we were forever outside.
That’s what resisting Christmas encompasses: maintaining ourselves as a people despite 2,600 years of genocide and the Blood Libel.
Still, to me Christmas has always been family, giving, and slowing down. It is really the one day in most of the world that everything stops, everyone gathers, and we show gratitude and giving. Of course it’s also commercial, political, and can be tacky as hell, but I do really love finding things for people and get tremendously excited watching them open them.
I love Christmas and I am not alone here. The best Christmas songs are by Jews. (Don’t @ me). Naturally, those aren’t about Christmas per se and certainly aren’t about Jesus. They’re about winter, which is really what I love. I love snow, trees, lights, and decor. I love the jazz music, the smells, seeing family in friends, fireplaces, slowing down, giving and receiving surprises, and generally taking a break from the regular world. I find it necessary to have a winter break, like the week off I’m enjoying now—first time in a year—and especially in the darkness and cold. I’ve been watching holiday movies*, mostly really bad.
*Many cite Die Hard as their favorite Christmas movie. Die Hard is, naturally, a Chanukah story: John McClane (JM / Judah Maccabee) takes on a much larger invading force in and around a foreign-occupied tower (er, temple) and against all odds, keeps surviving multiple sequels. He then forcibly circumcises the lapsed Jews. There’s plenty of Christmas songs and decor.
Again, Chanukah provides some of this connection and winter break, and definitely in America it’s been conflated with Christmas. But even before that westernization we lit the menorah for 2,164 years in the darkness to show our survival, that our light will not be extinguished. We just didn’t have the best songs (until now).
Last year during my learning and conversion process I asked my Rabbi, the amazing Susan Goldberg, about Christmas and how other converts feel about it. “You can’t mix the holidays,” she said, because that’s precisely what Chanukah marks, that we don’t mix them, we don’t minimize our beliefs or culture to try to fit in. It never works, for one, for us or our place in the larger culture, and it diminishes us and our proud history.
Yet I feel what many Rabbis maybe can not understand, and most Jews can’t experience, either: Christmas feels like fucking magic to a young child, and it’s certainly marketed as such. Even the secular Jewish-penned songs capture that; It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, indeed. It’s the time of year of apparent miracles: the menorah staying lit, the saving of Judaism yet again, the Christ story if he’s your guy, and the twinkling of stars and lights in the vast expanse of space as somehow, we survive yet another secular-solar calendar year and the numbers turn over into another arbitrary measure of time. That time is marked by the moon, the sun’s cycle, the 7-day week as laid out in Genesis, all slapped together in a mathematical mess that doesn’t quite add up. And time is marked by the ancient miracle of winter cold and darkness turning into light as we need it to survive, for our crops to come back and our world to be warm and welcoming again. For us to be able to see one another again in the light, unmasked, vaccinated, because the same unimaginable science that gives us daylight from 91 million miles away also gives us protection from illness.
My Rabbi wasn’t expecting me to abandon Christmas or my family, of course. But I do feel a tinge of shame, like I have to hide out on Christmas and not wear this fabulous winter onesie (I shall not, and it’s even blue and white). But I don’t need to hide this aspect of my history, and most of my Jewish peers love the holiday, too, or at the very least love how much their friends love it. I find myself in a mixed family; the family I was born into, but really no different than a Jew-by-birth marrying a gentile and having a new side of the family that celebrates Christmas.
That family ancestry is English, Scottish, German, and some Scandinavian, so all the places where Christmas decor and traditions came from. The pine tree, Santa, plaid, and shivering are in my DNA, and I can’t deny that.
And for my immediate family, it goes even deeper. When my mom was 3, her family was in a car accident that killed her older brother, who was born on Christmas. They never did anything for Christmas after that except mourn and her parents were abusive about it, to boot. So when she had her own kids she vowed to make Christmas amazing, and they sure succeeded there. Maybe they went overboard, like the year she insisted on 6 real pine trees inside? They’ve long since settled on a few artificial ones, a welcome change for everyone’s allergies (and budget), but it really was special.
So what shall I do going forward, when both Chanukah and Christmas return to normal? I’m still going to gather, I’m going to listen to songs like White Christmas, and I’m certainly going to accept presents from my family, who give me both Chanukah and Christmas gifts. Some Jews love Christmas. Some hate it. Chanukah is about separation and identity and holding onto our Judaism and culture within a larger, oppressive culture. The peace we enjoyed for a time in America is under siege; there were repeated antisemitic attacks and crimes during Chanukah this year, and last year was deadly, too.
I plan to honor our history of strength amid systemic, sustained centuries of violence, to recognize it every year; and also to remember the importance of where I came from. It’s a strange feeling to be Jewish at Christmas, and mine is an outsider within an outsider group: a Jew during secular Christmas, whose DNA ancestors persecuted my spiritual ancestors. I will never stop feeling that tension and sadness, deeply.
I also plan to keep making silly Chanukah videos and dank memes. I hope you enjoy.