This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on December 16, 2014.
While it may be cold outside, walking into any department store between the day after Thanksgiving and December 25 is definitely a trip to the fires of hell. Never mind the fact that the stores are more noisy and crowded than usual, never mind the stress of picking out the perfect present for your brother/sister/cousin/significant other/coworker you secretly detest, but the absolute worst part of the holiday shopping experience is the sound of Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra (or worse, Mariah Carey) crooning at me to have a “holly jolly Christmas.” Most people I know, Christian and non-Christian alike, look forward to the non-stop jamboree of Jingle Bells or Silver Bells that characterizes time of year and some in fact get their Jingle Bell Rock on in July, I have about as much enthusiasm for Christmas carols as the Grinch.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to steal anybody’s Christmas trees. The fact is, I do love Christmas. I love decorating the tree and taking a trip down memory lane by looking at ornaments acquired from various family vacations. I love eating waffles by the tree every Christmas morning after we open presents. I love visiting with extended family. I also love celebrating Chanukah with the Jewish side of my family. The fact is, having a Jewish father and Catholic mother landed me the holiday jackpot. I eat brisket and ham. I score chocolate gelt and a fully stuffed Christmas stocking as part of my holiday gift bag. I light a menorah and decorate a tree.
Despite the fact that I feel double the holiday cheer, I always felt like only part of my identity was publically celebrated. During elementary school, I would commiserate with my Jewish classmates as we sat through holiday concerts where we would hear 20 Christmas songs and the only acknowledgement of Chanukah in the hour-long program was a group of fifth graders warbling “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.”
As I got older though, I became less sensitized to it as I realized that Christmas is far more important to the Christian faith than Chanukah is to the Jewish one. For the Jews, Chanukah is a celebration of surviving adversity, and indeed, life is a celebration in and of itself, but it is one of many such celebrations. However, in Christianity, Christmas celebrates the birth of the Christian messiah and cornerstone of their faith. Without this event, Christianity would literally not exist. In fact, there’s a reason you cannot spell Christmas without the word “Christ.” Christians have every reason to full on celebrate this momentous occasion.
But does this mean, however, that Christmas paraphernalia has to dominate every department store throughout the month of December?Until recently, even municipal and public buildings got into the Christmas spirit. My poor Jewish father would sit in the DMV (a place he would probably not have chosen to spend his time) as visions of Santa, reindeers, and trees danced through the walls. This has never been a conflict about Christmas vs. Chanukah, or even Christianity vs. Judaism, but rather about how one tradition feels the need to assert itself to the point where non-believers cannot ignore it if they want to.
Just last week, one of the elementary schools in my home town of Cambridge, Massachusetts faced this very dilemma when Jennifer Ford, the school principal sent a letter home to families explaining that Santa Claus would not be making his usual appearance at the school this year, but would come to the school’s annual holiday concert. Non-Christian students were invited to play games with her in the library.
I respect Ms. Ford’s intentions to keep a fun school tradition alive while making others feel included, but by sequestering and isolating these non-Christian students, she is excluding them from an otherwise fun event. What 9 year-old would prefer Boggle in the library over singing with their friends and family? Besides, even the concept of Santa Claus, who is so Omni-present that he sees you when you’re sleeping and who has nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with commercialism, exists to exclude non-Christians from the holiday merriment. Imagine being a Jewish/Muslim/Buddhist/Hindu parent and walking through the mall with your four year old and having to explain to them why the nice man with the white beard and the red suit won’t give them presents. After all, what kid of any religion doesn’t like the idea of a magical man who gives them free swag every year? It is as if an affluent country club is publicly flaunting its yachts and Grey Goose, yet flashing Members Only jackets at every possible chance. I know that department stores merely want to profit off a time when so many people are shopping. However, as someone who simultaneously lives within this inner circle and on the outside looking in, I can say that this is the image that the Christmas market projects regardless of the intentions of individual Christians who just want to celebrate faith and family.
However, this is not to say that people of other faiths have not found creative ways to make the holiday season their own. Unlike Christmas, which is traditionally a time for gift giving because of the wise men who traveled all the way to Bethlehem bearing gifts for the newborn messiah, there is nothing in the Chanukah story that even mentions gifts. This was probably just an invention on the part of the great rabbis to keep Jewish kids from missing Santa too much. To quote Adam Sandler “instead of one day of presents, we get eight crazy nights.” The song that this quote is from, Adam Sandler’s famous “Chanukah Song,” names all the famous Jews in the show business and is a fun way to remind Jewish children that they’re not the only kids in town without a Christmas tree. (The song also keeps in touch with the Jewish tradition of name dropping.)
While Christmas will always be the predominant holiday in December because of its marketability and the sheer number of people who celebrate it, I am also excited to see other inventive techniques Jews and people of other faiths will use to take back the holiday season.