by Akim Reinhardt
I have very fond memories from the 1990s of listening to a friend’s Gujarati Indian immigrant family butcher Christmas carols.
It was an annual Christmas Eve tradition for these religious Hindus. Each year, with women on one side of the room and men on the other, the genders separated by the large, decorated tree, they joyously worked their way through about a half-dozen classics. Sometimes they sang in unison, and sometimes they traded parts while they consulted xeroxed lyric sheets. When it came to “Deck the Halls,” everyone always got a chuckle out of the men warbling “Fa la la la, La la la la!”
For me, an American Jew then in my mid-20s, it was a liberating experience.
Christmas might not be everyone’s favorite holiday, but there’s no denying that here in the United States, it is THE holiday. None of the others can really compete. It is front and center in the cultural consciousness for no less then a month, beginning its inexorable, swelling crescendo the minute Thanksgiving ends in late November.
The din of Christmas music, a parade of TV specials, holiday parties one after the next, wrangling a tree, shopping for gifts, writing and reading year-in-review cards from friends and family, and a dozen other tasks and signposts: the United States is consumed by Christmas for roughly four weeks every year. And it doesn’t even end on the 26th. Rather, that merely kicks off a week’s worth of giddy de-escalation, the Christmas season not finally relinquishing its hold on society until the New Year’s arrival.
If you have overwrought memories of and expectations for Christmas, it can be quite stressful. If you’ve become jaded about the holiday’s commercialism and relentlessness, it can be incessantly annoying. But if you’re Jewish, and thus imbued from an early age with a uniquely difficult relationship to Christianity, then it can be downright oppressive and wrought with the a deep sense of inner conflict that tears at you from every direction.
To be Jewish, at least in my experience, is in some ways to feel like a victim of elder abuse. It is to know that Judaism is directly responsible for Christianity. We spawned it way back when. But as that child grew to maturity, it far surpassed us in size and popularity, aggressively claiming countless millions of converts. And along the way, it turned violent towards us. Crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, the Holocaust. Century after century, Christians fomented and manifested their weird love-hate relationship with us. They rape, they pillage, they torture, they kill, but they can’t let us go. Because in the end, they know they are of us. Because Jesus himself was a fucking Jew. It seems almost Oedipal.
And for Jews? To live in the Americas or Europe is to be swallowed up whole, to live forever in the presence of that gargantuan spawn, carrying the burden of centuries of vicious abuse, unable to escape the overbearing presence of Christianity. And it’s to be trapped by a nagging sense that this broken relationship is eternal. To forever wonder, even if it’s only in the back of your mind, when the abuser might lash out again.
Or at least that’s how it felt for me growing up in the Bronx, the grandson of Eastern European Jewish refugees who had gotten out just in time.
And I’m only half-Jewish.
The worst of it wasn’t drunken hooliganism spilling over from St. Paddy Day parades, or the specter of ultimate blame that shades the pastels of Easter. No, the worst of it was typically at Christmas. Because that’s when fear and resentment transformed into envy.
Goddamn if those Gentiles didn’t seem like they were having the time of their lives. All of a sudden everyone was in such a good mood, doing nice things for each other, extending holiday greetings, and sharing moments of real, heart-felt sincerity. Christians, even relative strangers, have a way of looking in each other’s eyes during the Christmas season and saying just the nicest things in the world and seeming to really, really mean them.
Were these actually the same people calling me “Christ-killer,” who used “Jew” as a synonym for “cheap,” or who in a fit of rage on the playground screeched “Hilter was right!”
But their seasonal kindness and fraternity wasn’t merely enough to make me forgive. It also made me jealous.
Jews were never this nice to each other. Not in my experience anyway. Plenty nice, sure, yeah. But there was no equal sense of love for your fellow man, perhaps because we were each expected to pledge our loyalty to the tribe. There was certainly no religious experience as cathartically loving as Christmas. Passover is a wonderful time for families, but its spirit is more akin to the 1969 New York Mets baseball team (the ultimate underdogs) winning the World Series than it is about unconditional love. And when we got together to really mean something on Yom Kippur, it was about bowing down and asking God to forgive us for our sins. Of course it was really great of God to do that for us, but what did we actually do for each other?
More than anything, I wanted to partake in the brotherhood of Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards Men. I wanted to look someone in the eye, shake their hand, and exchange that depth of love.
And of course there were the gifts. They start with a decorated Christmas tree, that coniferous shrine of positive reciprocity, which is certainly one of the coolest things in and of itself in the eyes of a child. But the gifts themselves? For a pre-pubescent, the orgy of Christmas gifts is about as close as you get to sex.
Consequently, to be an American Jew is to be surrounded by Christian discomfort for 11 months, only to be submerged into a pool of Christmastime envy during the twelfth.
Really, it’s a bit much.
For many American Jews, all that torment and envy has created a desire to compete. And the result has been the transformation of a relatively minor holiday, Chanukah, into something that attempts, but fails miserably, to ape Christmas. Here in the United States, every Jewish child is intimately familiar with the desire and pressure to have Chanukah vie with the distinctly American version of Christmas.
But Chanukah is a very poor substitute for Christmas.
Because the Jewish calendar is an adjusted lunar model with a leap month, the sprawling eight days of Chanukah almost always take place in December, and tend to overlap with Christmas about every third year or so. This simple coincidence of timing has elevated its importance for many American Jews, placing it in the untenable position of trying to compete with THE American holiday.
I remember, when I was young, checking the calendar some time during the fall, when distant rumblings of Christmas could first be felt. I hoped to find that this would be one of those years when we had an excuse to be festive when everyone else was. But even when the stars aligned, it was not enough. Indeed, in some ways it merely underscored how inadequate Chanukah, the “Festival of Lights,” was when compared directly to Noel.
For starters, a menorah is no Christmas tree, and only a burgeoning pyromaniac could find approximate joy in one. Latkes, Jewish potato pancakes that are the dish of the season, are good. But they pale in comparison to the candy canes, sprinkled cookies, gingerbread houses, and whatever the fuck else sugar plum fairy bullshit people cram in their mouths this time of year. And while teaching a child to spin a dreidel is a good way to help him or her develop a gambling habit, the few coins or minor trinkets he or she might earn along the way can’t hold a candle to Christmas gifts.
God damn those gifts.
Historically, Chanukah has had little of anything to do with gift-giving. But in a failed attempt to compete with Christmas, in a vain effort to keep their children from feeling inadequate as their goyishe classmates drown in wrapping paper, Jewish parents often give their children some gifts during Chanukah.
It’s like offering a teenager a virgin colada while all the adults are drinking wine and cocktails at a wedding.
For me, the pleasures of Christmas as a child were not completely foreign because I am a half-breed. My father was raised Lutheran. While his family was in far off California, my mother’s was close by, so the Jewish influence was much greater, and I was raised Jewish, from Bris to Bar Mitzvah. At the same time, both of my parents were skeptical of organized religion and the gross commercialism of every holiday, from Christmas on down to Mother’s and Father’s day. But they weren’t exactly heartless ideologs.
We always celebrated one or the other, either Christmas or Chanukah, some years both. Either way, we exchanged a few relatively modest gifts. And though it was usually Chanukah at the fore, there were a few years in which we had trees. There was a small, silvery aluminum thing for a while. Once it started to shed, my mother tossed it. We even had a couple of actual pines until my kid sister was born; it turns out she was allergic to them. Gave her asthma.
I mention this merely to illustrate that I was not raised in a restrictive Jewish household, and that I was not a complete outsider looking in. I was from a mixed family living in a mixed (Jewish and Irish) neighborhood in the Bronx. My envy of Christmas was not the hopeless yearning of some Dickensian street urchin, wind-burnt face pressed up against the glass, watching wealthier folk feast on braised goose and baked ham. Rather, I was Jewish enough to not feel any real kinship to Christmas, but enough of a goy to have some semblance of what it actually was. And that, no doubt, shaped my envy.
As I got older, my unrequited love for Christmas began to ease. Drifting into atheism helped. While I’ve always held onto my half-breed Jewish ethnicity, leaving God behind washed from me much of the sectarian competition that is so rife among adherents of the major Western religions. There’s something about their exclusivism and genealogy that make their relationships especially rivlarous. It seems rather distant and silly to me now.
By my late teens and early 20s, Christmas was something I got good at ignoring to some extent. It was that day when all the stores were closed. It was a good day to see a movie and grab some Chinese food. You know, before all the gentiles also began to realize that this is actually a good way to spend a day off, especially after you’ve been cooped up with your family for far too long. But now you can’t go near a theater on December 25th.
However, spending several Christmases with my Gujarati friend’s family was a real turning point. Because it helped crystalize for me the difference between the ancient Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus, and the secular American holiday that doesn’t have a damn thing to do with Jesus.
Three generations’ worth of Indian immigrants and their progeny would decorate a tree, wrap and exchange gifts, and even sing overtly religious songs like “Oh Holy Night.” They were Hindus. Not only weren’t they Christian, a number of them didn’t even really know all that much about Christian theology. Yet there they were, not only “doing” Christmas, and not being threatened by it at all. Hell, they were enjoying it as much as the next guy.
The War on Christmas agitators, especially the propagandists in big-time right-wing media like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, are largely full of shit of course. Christmas dominates American culture during the entire month of December and almost everybody celebrates in one way or another, including millions of non-Christians.
But the religious Christians who complain that one of their most sacred holidays has been exploited and debased by commerce and secularization? The folks who rail against “Xmas,” decrying the removal of “Christ” from “Christmas?”
I think they're absolutely right.
For many Americans, Santa Clause is a more pivotal Christmas figure than Jesus. Elves and reindeer supplant angels and wise men. “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Winter Wonderland” are far more popular than “O Tannenbaum” or “Oh Holy Night.” And countless millions of Americans spend Christmas Eve opening gifts (or wrapping them at the last minute) instead of going to church.
In other words, my Indian friends weren't singing the praises of Christ's birth because they were about to convert. Rather, they were taking Christmas and making their own. They were turning something ostensibly Christian into something that was decidedly un-Christian.
Of course many Americans comfortably overlap the religious and secular incarnations of Christmas, finding ways to accommodate both the generalized seasonal festivities and sincere Christian devotion. But in a way, making room for both only reinforces the necessity of faith and devotion to co-exist with popular culture in the 21st century West, and particularly here in the United States.
Because in a nation where citizenship is based on a political ideal instead of an ethnicity, and where where national ethnicity itself, “American-ness,” is an incredibly dynamic and flexible thing, celebrating the secular, pop-culture version of Christmas is a fast track to actually being accepted. It’s a harmless (though potentially expensive) form of assimilation.
That’s what my Gujarati friends understood. Celebrating the birth of Christ is a way to be Christian. But decorating a tree, eating gingerbread cookies, exchanging gifts, and even singing “Fa La La,” is way to be American.
I no longer harbor dark resentments or glowing envy for Christmas. Rather, I've come to embrace its secular form, though only partially. I still don’t bother with a tree; it seems like too much trouble. And I can also call on my Jewish roots and my inherited opposition to commercialism to avoid all that gifting. I don’t actually like giving or receiving gifts; I never know what to get anyone, and receiving gifts makes me uncomfortable.
Maybe I should speak to someone about that.
Regardless, I have found a way to partake in Christmas to some degree, and in the process, to share in the warmth and fellowship I always found so appealing.
Each Christmas Eve, an old friend and three generations of his small but energetic family host dinner and drinks a tavern in the Washington Heights section of northern Manhattan. He invites friends, and typically anywhere from a dozen to twenty people show up. I’ve been going for about 15 years now. It’s a time to reconnect, break bread, toast, and revel in the glow of the Christmas season.
This weekend I’ll drive from Baltimore to New York City, and on Monday night, once again I’ll be at Coogan’s on W. 168th street. I’ll be back home, among friends, on Christmas. And this half-breed atheist Jew will be happy.
In that spirit, I wish you all a Merry Christmas.
Fa La La La La!
Akim Reinhardt blogs regularly at The Public Professor. If you visit his site and like something you see or read, feel free to leave nice comments. But Please. No gifts.