Between the Lines: Christmas for Christians – and Jews, too?

Is Christmas a Christian holiday?
Maybe the people who keep urging us to put the Christ back in Christmas have a point. At a time when a growing number of Americans identify with no religious institution, we’ve lost much of the holiday’s religious value.
But many historians believe the historical Jesus was born in the spring. The timing and some of the rituals of modern-day Christmas (e.g., the tree hauled in from the forest) appropriate pagan, solstice celebrations for the purposes of the dominant religious paradigm of our time.
And then there is the question of Jews and Christmas.
Many American Jews gently wrestle each year with their relationship to this Christian holiday of holidays.
They sometimes feel assaulted by endless Christmas carols, surrounded by Christmas decorations in public spaces, and greeted by well meaning people wishing them “Merry Christmas.” They sometimes feel pressured to make the relatively minor holiday of Hanukkah into a Jewish counterpart to Christmas.
I don’t mean to speak for my Jewish friends here. But I will say that for many of my Jewish contemporaries, it seems to me the question of how to relate to Christmas — and whether to join in the rituals of the holiday — has an added poignancy because they grew up in homes where their parents were focused on assimilating within the larger culture.
While their families may have observed Jewish holidays and traditions in one form or another, often their parents were no longer observant.
They will tell you they had the sense that their family was in some ways different from most others by virtue of being Jewish. But for many families, that sense of tribal Judaism was consciously subdued.
When these cultural Jews then married cultural Christians, interesting things happened.
Many of the Jewish halves of these marriages continued upon the assimilationist path pioneered by their parents. Shabbat was something their grandparents did.
Others, though, felt a resurgence of their Jewishness. They observe the high holidays, hold Seders, and light candles at Hanukkah. Perhaps they have begun attending services again at the local temple.
Whatever those choices were, there was the question of how and whether to give their children religious education of any kind.
And always with the kids, the question of whether or not to have a Christmas tree and how heavily to emphasize the gift-giving traditions of the holiday.
In most mixed marriages, the decision wasn’t a hard one. They didn’t want to deny their kids the material feast in which their peers reveled every December. What harm was there in both lighting Hanukkah candles and having a tree with gifts under it?
They gave the kids small presents for Hanukkah and yes, bigger ones at Christmas.
There’s a larger aspect to all this, of course. These questions about Christmas occur within a much larger context.
We remember the Holocaust and vow, “Never again.” In partial recompense for the Holocaust, the United States helped create and now heavily armed Israel.
Beyond the interplay of Christians and Jews, we move haltingly toward embracing a cultural, racial and religious diversity that encompasses African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims and gays.
But for now my thoughts are on the personal, not the political.
While my parents were unreligious Protestants from Georgia, their best friends were observant Jews from New York.
Norman A. was a medical school classmate of my dad’s, and his wife, Roz, was my mother’s best friend. To me, they will always be Uncle Norman and Aunt Roz.
We celebrated most Christmases together in the small western New York town where I grew up.
The A’s usually arrived from Great Neck the afternoon of Christmas Eve. In failing afternoon light, my father, Norman, and we five kids would drive out to a friend’s farm. Putting on skis or snowshoes, we clambered out through the heavy snow to find just the right tree.
Once the tree was hauled home and erected in the family room, my dad would put a sign on it, announcing that it was in fact a Hanukkah bush. He would tell the kids the story of Christmas, and Norman would tell us about Hanukkah.
To this day when Norman waxes nostalgic, it’s often about those Christmases in Clyde.
Norman and Roz’s older daughter, Judy, is my oldest friend.
A couple of days before Christmas this year, I’ll journey down Route 30 to spend some time first with my Jewish girlfriend and her kids, who are now in their 20s and themselves the children of a mixed marriage.
Then I’ll continue south on Christmas Eve day to Judy’s, where I’ll celebrate with Judy, her Protestant Southern husband, and their two sons. Christmas breakfast will feature the venison steaks that her family and mine always had every December 25.
We’ll warm our hearts at the hearth of traditions that were begun by my parents and Judy’s.
Setting aside the weighty questions of religion and culture, and in defiance of the darkest days of the year, we’ll rekindle the lights of love and generosity.
Merry Christmukkah, everyone.
• Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email him at [email protected].

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