In 2015, I officially converted to Judaism. While I was not brought up in a particularly religious household, my family has no Jewish background; the reasons why I converted are complicated, but suffice it to say that it was the right choice for me. Like most Americans, my family had celebrated Christmas for all my life, though generally not with much emphasis on the religious aspects. Christmas and the holiday season had nothing to do with my decision to become Jewish, but once I did convert, the very next December I experienced an unexpected fringe benefit: I was suddenly absolved of the obligations, stress and baggage that come with Christmas, and this absolution was much more of a relief than I would have thought possible going in.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Christmas-hater. In fact in my childhood and early adulthood I liked Christmas a lot, mirroring the progression of how it usually goes for middle-class kids brought up in largely secular families. When you’re a small child Christmas is great because you get toys; as a teenager or in college you look forward to a lengthy break from school; as an adult you tend to enjoy the togetherness with family, the food, the festive atmosphere and the general pause in a busy year. But Christmas in modern America also comes with a lot of demands. There are financial demands, in buying gifts; emotional demands in confronting family; and, these days, even political and cultural demands, as Christmas has become politicized in the context of conservatives’ ludicrous assertions of a “War on Christmas” and weaponizing Christmas-themed greetings, symbols and icons in an ongoing and very tiresome culture war.
In modern commercialized Christmas, days of (allegedly) heavy shopping have become almost like holidays unto themselves. I’m uncomfortable with this.
My Jewish friends, particularly those who have kids, are even more angsty about Christmas. It’s hard to tell a child that in your household December holidays (Hanukkah, which in 2017 is already over) are about lighting candles, saying prayers and maybe eating latkes when their non-Jewish friends are going on about the bikes, video game consoles or iPhones that they expect to receive on Christmas morning. One of my Jewish friends refers to the season as “Giftmas” and sees the commercialization of Christmas and its frenzy of stuff-buying as a significant challenge in maintaining Jewish religious identity in her household. (That it’s also a threat to Christian identity goes without saying). She’s not wrong. I don’t face the issue because I don’t have kids, but I certainly see the problem.
I’m in a bit of an odd situation because my family, who is not Jewish, still celebrates Christmas. What happened after my conversion was a sort of unspoken “truce.” No one in my family expects me to buy them gifts for a holiday I don’t celebrate; sometimes they give me gifts, which is fine, and quite appreciated, though there is no expectation of any. Frankly, receiving a very few small gifts from family members is vastly preferable to the way it was when I still “did” Christmas. The truth is, as much as I appreciate the giving spirit of Christmas, many Christmas gifts themselves are not very useful. Socks, underwear, a tie–okay, those are useful; but one year I received a little radio controlled helicopter that could hover indoors. (I was not a kid; I got this gift in my 30s). This kind of stuff piles up over time. I remember years ago moving out of an apartment and finding a big shopping bag full of old Christmas gifts, which had never been used or even taken out of the bag after I brought them home. “Oh, here’s Christmas 2003.” There’s something a little disconcerting about this.
Does the Christmas season for you include a lot of vistas like this one? Hopefully not, but for many people, trips to the mall are synonymous with holidays.
Ironically, being absolved of “Giftmas” was one of the best gifts I ever received. Not only are Star Trek coffee mugs and radio-controlled helicopters no longer piling up in the back of my closet, but I’ve been able to reclaim some real meaning for the holiday season. What does it mean to light a candle and recite a prayer that has been said, on this same night of the year, by others of your people going back 2,000 years? What does it mean to be with family–not buying or spending as some sort of symbol or cryptic communication, but actually being with them, on human terms? These rituals communicate so much more than whatever mixed messages might result from buying and giving material objects. This is the meaning of Christmas that has been lost.
Furthermore, I’m convinced that many–probably most–people who do celebrate Christmas would, deep down, agree. What does going to the mall at 3:00 AM on “Black Friday” have to do with the birth of Jesus? Why should I care when news commentators tell us how retail sales this Christmas are doing compared to the previous year? A faux-nostalgic film about a kid in the 1940s who wants a gun for Christmas is cute on some level, but running it 24 hours a day on cable, smashed between commercials for cars, electronics and toys, seems a bit much. The final irony is that I am not a Christian but I strongly agree with the sentiment, “Put Christ back in Christmas.” My December holiday celebrates the resilience and endurance of the Jewish people as symbolized by the Hanukkah lights. Yours, if you’re a Christian, seems like it should similarly reflect upon the core values of your own faith. It’s hard for me to see how iPhones and HDTVs help make that picture clearer.
This is what December looks like for me now.
In becoming Jewish, I discovered that there is, in fact, life after Christmas. My Decembers, filled as they are with candles, family, wine and simple prayers, are actually more fun than they used to be when they were filled with toys and shopping. I wish everybody could make their holidays more meaningful, whatever faith they follow (or if they follow none at all).