What’s it like to be an American Jew at Christmas? There are as many answers to that as there are American Jews. GQ’s Julia Ioffe, for example, wants you to stop wishing her a merry Christmas. After tweeting that she didn’t want to explain why, she took to The Washington Post to write that it’s “lonely to be reminded a thousand times every winter that the dominant American cultural event occurs without me.”
It’s true that Christmas is the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to American holidays. It’s also true that if you’re Jewish, Christmas is always somebody else’s holiday. But beyond that, I view the season rather differently, because of my own family’s history and because of who I am.
My mother’s parents were German-Jewish immigrants. In their tiny German hometowns, they were among the very few Jews. So, every year, my Jewish ancestors gathered for dinner on Christmas day. They weren’t Christmas dinners as much as they were opportunities for community. This way, Jewish families didn’t feel isolated while the Christian majority observed Christmas.
Once stateside, my family adopted the more American version of Jewish Christmas: Chinese food and a movie. That’s what I grew up with and have begun teaching to my own children, along with rituals related to our own religious holidays.
I accept that as a Jew, I am a religious outsider by definition (anywhere other than Israel). However, I don’t feel alone, because I am surrounded by a warm Jewish community and a tolerant larger society. This country’s vibrant tradition of religious liberty means that I can choose to attend synagogue, eat kosher food, and give my children a Jewish education. I also don’t feel excluded as an American. I love celebrating the 4th of July and Thanksgiving, for example, and I’m always happy to attend a good Super Bowl party.
Still, I see the Christmas season — in spite of its clearly Christian core — as remarkably inclusive in this country. When strangers wish me a merry Christmas, I take it as a kindness. Someone, who likely celebrates the holiday themselves, is sharing their joy with me. As a Jew who knows what she believes, I feel happy for my Christian friends and neighbors, as they prepare to celebrate the most special holiday on their religious calendar.
Beyond that, I believe I benefit from others’ Christmas season excitement. I’m invited to lively parties to catch up with friends and colleagues I may not have seen for a while, because everyone’s busy; in December, people make time. I enjoy watching heartwarming (now holly-filled) movies on the Hallmark Channel. I love receiving cards featuring the smiling faces of far-flung friends and their children. And let’s not forget the countless twinkly lights. At the darkest point in the year, when we light Shabbat candles in the 4 o’clock hour in Washington (or just before 4 p.m. if you live in Boston), I appreciate the sparkle amidst the darkness. It makes winter less bleak.
Christmas is part of the American landscape. Regardless of whether one’s a Christian, it’s hard to live here and not know when the holiday is or what it’s about. If our goal is making the world a better place, one Christmas value that can, and should, be universally applied is the emphasis on giving or doing for others — something I learned by observing my own parents.
When I was growing up, my mother ran a halfway house for the homeless mentally ill. She was the only Jew on staff. So, every Christmas, my mother volunteered to work a double shift. That way, Christian staff members could spend at least part of the day with their loved ones.
Similarly, as a teenager, I regularly babysat for Catholic neighbors on Christmas Eve, so the parents could attend midnight mass, while their young children slept. I was always glad I could help on my neighbors’ holy day.
At my first real job, I even volunteered to come into the office and answer phones on Christmas, wanting to reciprocate for others’ enabling me to leave and observe major Jewish holidays. My boss appreciated the offer but told me not to bother, as the federal government is always closed for Christmas.
This Tuesday, I’ll be enjoying Jewish Christmas at home with my family. Should you see me and wish me a merry Christmas, I’ll wish you one right back and hope you enjoy this “most wonderful time of the year.” Merry Christmas, America!