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December Dilemma: Maccabees vs. the Elves

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I have been so busy preparing for Hannukah and Christmas (both) that I have, thus far, pushed away the urge to weigh in on the so-called "December dilemma" (a term used to describe to the quandry in which so called "interfaith" Jewish/Christian couples find themselves as Hanukkah and Christmas approach). I find the discussions facile, and believe that in the course of them, too often, the most important truths relating to both holidays -- those pertaining to light, the miraculous, and liberation from darkness -- wind up glossed over and negated.

I recently read a young Jewish mother's account of her attempt to explain to her very young child why their (Jewish) family did not celebrate Christmas. In earnestness, she compared the solemnity of Christmas to that of Yom Kippur. A noble enough effort; she was not entirely wrong in this. Yom Kippur and Christmas do have a few things in common: twice-a-year worshippers show up at temples and churches on these days; both holy days are, in essence, solemn. But it was Xmas, not Christmas, on which the gleam in the eye of the young Jewish boy in question was fixed, not Christmas.

The truth is, that unlike Jews who show up at shul twice a year at Yom Kippur for a big, holy idea, twice-a-year worshippers of the non-Jewish persuasion show up at Christmas mass for pageantry. I don't think that's a bad thing. Religious ritual is rarely trivial, and there's never a bad reason, in my opinion, for "dwelling in the house of the Lord," because the beauty of these spaces -- what Catholics call the "smells and bells" factor-- jump start the spirit.

Nonetheless, I know, while taking part in the Christmas Eve mass in the church I attend regularly, that I am surrounded by many who are celebrating "Xmas" and not "Christmas." One of the delightful ironies of the Hanukkah versus Christmas conversation is the propensity of Jews to put Jesus back into the feast from which so-called "Christians" regularly expel Him. The notion that Christmas as we know it is essentially religious is simply not a reasonable "given" in the proof of whether a Jew who tolerates a Christmas tree is some kind of tribe-traitor. Most people in the U.S. who celebrate Christmas are not engaged in Christian worship when they do so. Many don't give fig (or cup of figgy pudding) about Jesus as they put the angel atop the evergreen. It's Xmas (hold the Christ, please) they celebrate. Whether for better or worse (I think it's both.) Xmas in the U.S. today has little more Christ in it than Saturnalia did.

But one always makes the same mistake the aforementioned mother made when one compares things Jewish and Christian. It's always apples and oranges. Further compounding the analysis is that it is fundamentally anti-Semitic and misleading to employ Christian terms and constructs when discussing aspects of Jewish culture and worship. Both holidays in the U.S. now bear the taint of 'Xmasization,' for the bastardization of "Christmas," which gave us "Xmas," also turned the festival of Hanukkah -- a sweet, restrained, family celebration -- into a tinselly over-inflated Christmas wannabe.

Were I to venture, despite the oranges and apples factor, to compare Christmas to any Jewish holiday, I might suggest that Passover is the one more like it. In some ways, Passover and Christmas have similar shapes. Each is joyous. Both are chiefly home-based (not temple-based) holy days. Both often call for travel and protract beyond a day or two. Both respond and reflect in gorgeous and specific ways to the dramatic changes of the seasons in which they occur. Both run deep in the secular and social self.

Most germane to the dueling Solstice holidays question is that the pleasures and joys associated with Passover are ones few Jews having known them would easily forfeit. Christmas runs deep in those who celebrate it. We celebrate Christmas even through loss, tragedy, death. This persistence is built into the essence of Christmas because in its purist form, Christmas celebrates the refusal to be mastered by darkness. Christmas is our holiday of hope. In this regard it does indeed remind me of Passover. For those raised with Christmas who do not believe in God, Christmas and Xmas both often retain vestiges of this hope, spirituality, and the root essence of the sacred warmth associated with the holy day. Banishing hopeful enjoyment and expression of this spirit and sacred warmth serves no one. It's hard to imagine that snuffing out such light honors anyone's God.

It seems reasonable to ask whether a family that begins to anguish over its religious character (or lack of one) when the Christmas decorations magically appear on Fifth Avenue isn't putting too little emphasis on Jewish tradition, prayer, ritual and culture throughout the other 10 months of the year. It's easy to understand why those questioning their degree of Jewishness might wish to view December celebrations as some kind of ultimate test for authentic Jewishness, but the Christmas or not assessment is not a valid one. The need to embrace it as such may be, at least in some, a symptom of a so-called "interfaith" family's failure to develop Jewish consciousness during the other 49 or so weeks of the year.

Those who are not Jewish have trouble understanding the "tribal" piece of being Jewish and therefore are not able to understand how disrespectful to Jewish tradition Christmas can be. Very young children of all ethnicity and religious backgrounds really can't grasp the personal politics that grow out of 5000 years of struggle, exile and persecution. As an Irish Catholic, I have a slight inkling of what the tribal piece might feel like, but I can never really know it. Being reasonably well-edified, I can help my Jewish husband plant the seeds for Jewish consciousness in our children, who are, despite what some (whose sexist and medieval definitions and opinions I have considered and rejected) say, children of "the tribe." I celebrated my 53rd birthday last August. No one else in my family tuned 53 that day, but we all celebrated. I celebrate Christmas as a Catholic. My family joins me in it, but they do so as non-Christians.

One favorite "go-to" friend on matters religious is a man I might describe as a devout Reform Jew whose approach to observance I have long admired. He believes in God, observes Sabbath, studies Torah, and has raised (with the help of a non-Jewish wife) children with strong Jewish identity. Every Christmas Eve, however, he prepares a traditional Christmas Eve dinner for his (practicing) Catholic wife. The wife retains her Catholic beliefs and devotions, but has a fierce and abiding love for Jewish prayer, ritual and culture. She has raised Jewish children, works in the temple and supports her husband in his dedication to Torah and Sabbath. The notion that her husband's choice to lavish a little Christmas on his wife might render this religious man somehow less Jewish is absurd. What he celebrates, when my friend makes the special meal, plays a Sinatra Christmas recording, or maybe even allows the gentile's "tree with lights in it" to a place in his home, is not so much Xmas as it is the mitzvah of his marriage, the honor of his wife, the love that moved the Creator, and the remotely Saturnalian determination of all human spirits to seek warm and light as winter's chill closes in and darkness descends on the material world.

I understand the Jewish concern for erosion of Jewishness. Not a Friday night dinner goes by in my home wherein I don't take up this topic for discussion for the benefit of my own children. Building Jewish consciousness in a family in which only one parent is Jewish can be difficult -- especially in a world still filled with so many doltish Christians so quick to brandish the cross as an instrument of prejudice and torment. In my own home, the Jew (who is not religious) teaches Jewish cultural identity and consciousness, but it is the Christmas-celebrator in our family who takes up teaching the children to worship as Jews. If parents build Jewish identity -- if the foundation is sound -- the December dilemma can become a non-issue.

I don't want a crèche at the courthouse. And a Hanukkah menorah there doesn't make me feel any better about the creche, because the public menorah-lighting is a by-product of the "Xmasization" of Hanukkah, which offends me. I don't like the "war on Christmas" whiners. I don't like Christmas bullies. But when one Jew tells another Jew he or she "can not" celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, he or she engages in a variation of the same kind of bullying in which the pro-Christmas soldiers in the "war on Christmas" engage.

If so-called "interfaith" couples want their children to be Jews, they should introduce their children to he splendor of Jewish knowledge, ritual, sacred texts, practice and prayer. If children come to know that they are Jews and what that means, the Maccabees will always trounce the elves. Alternatively, if children with Jewish parents are not taught what those eight nights of fat and light actually mean, the jolly fat elf will win.

I don't much like the "interfaith" religion game plan for children. As a somewhat religious woman who has been teaching children for more than 30 years, I'm pretty sure raising children to believe as both Christians and Jews is not tenable. If, on some divine transcendent plane poets, philosophers and mystics frequent, such a reconciliation, between Jewish and Christian belief, is possible, it lies well beyond the reach of young children. The closest children get to such holy sublimity is through their angelic capacity to give and receive love. All children need the grounding of knowing who they are in order to grow in love, to learn that the variousness of the world is its own kind of blessing, and to arrive at the awareness that celebrating with those one loves is a mitzvah. We honor God and creation when we teach them to build this fire and how to feed its glow.