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Dec 25 2012

Christmas From The Outside

Just some personal reflections on Christmas from an outsider.

It is impossible to be a person living in the United States, of any ethnicity, religious affiliation, or national origin, and not understand the meaning and significance of Christmas.

It’s a religious observance. It’s a sparkling monument to consumerism. It’s a celebration of family, of charity, of miracles, of food, of childhood, of living ethically–depending on who you ask. It is the only holiday I’ve ever heard of that has an entire genre of music dedicated to it, that requires over a month of preparation via that music playing in every public space, hours of shopping, and decorations covering trees, roofs, walls, doors, countertops, bathrooms.

Growing up as an immigrant and a secular Jew in a particularly Christian and conservative part of the Midwest, I grasped all of this so early on that I don’t even remember learning it.

It’s bizarre and a bit unsettling, having such a detailed understanding of a set of traditions, beliefs, and principles that I have never participated in. With absolutely no effort, I learned about jingle bells, advent calendars, stockings, Santa Claus, coal, elves, milk and cookies, chimneys, Christmas Mass, eggnog, nativity scenes, reindeer, holly, mistletoe, and more. It’s not like I ever had to ask a Christian friend about their observances or attend one on my own. I just absorbed all this information passively by virtue of living in the United States.

This, to me, is part of what it means to live in a Christian country. Christianity is the default here, which is how I came to be so knowledgeable about its traditions while few of the people I meet know anything about my traditions.

This isn’t in itself a “bad” thing. If you live in the places I’m from, you’ll experience the same thing. It’s impossible to live in Russia without understanding what New Year’s Eve means to us. It’s impossible to live in Israel without knowing exactly how we observe Shabbat, Purim, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Chanukah, and many others that you probably haven’t even heard of.

The truth is, though, that I have to understand Christmas. If I didn’t, it’d be kind of weird, don’t you think? Friends would tell me they can’t leave the house and go do something on the 25th and I’d wonder why. We’d be asked to sing Christmas songs in class and I wouldn’t know any of the words. When asked what I did for Christmas, I’d say that I sat around at home and read a book rather than understanding that I’m supposed to say that I spent it with my family.

I have to understand Christmas in order to interact with people normally at this time of year. But they never have to understand the things my family and I do for holidays in order to interact normally with me. It’s standard for people to ask me why I’m shopping for “New Year’s presents,” or why Chanukah lasts eight days.

My little brother’s teacher once asked someone from our family to come to their class and give a presentation about Chanukah, so I showed up with a menorah and a bunch of dreidls and gelt, explained the history of the holiday to the class, and showed them how to play the game. It was fun and they seemed to have a good time, and it occurred to me that nobody ever had to give me a presentation about Christmas.

Some of my earliest memories of living in the United States have to do with Christmas. I remember singing Christmas songs in school in kindergarten. At first I was jealous, naturally, of the other kids. I’d pass by my neighbors’ houses and see the glowing Christmas trees through their living room windows. Although in Russian culture we have “New Year’s trees” (or novogodniye yolki, I guess you would say), my parents abandoned that tradition. I think they realized that people would pass by on the street and assume that we celebrate Christmas just like everyone else. The fact that a decorated evergreen tree could have any other significance probably doesn’t occur to many people.

Anyway, I grew up and stopped feeling jealous, instead growing proud of my own holidays, traditions, and language. But it stings sometimes to have our observances roped into this amorphous Holiday Season when, in fact, the similarities end with the fact that our holidays happen at the same time of year. Chanukah is nothing like Christmas, and neither is New Year’s Eve (except for the fact that the Soviets stole some of those traditions from Christmas).

These days it has become politically correct to acknowledge non-Christian wintertime holidays as part of the Holiday Season. Grocery stores now carry dreidls, gelt, and menorahs; people celebrate winter solstice; kids in school sing a song about Chanukah in addition to all those Christmas songs. Kwanzaa, a holiday observed by the African American community that the majority of Americans might not have otherwise heard of, is often given an obligatory shout-out. “Happy holidays” is often considered more appropriate to say instead of “Merry Christmas” if you do not know which holiday(s) someone observes.

It’s nice that people are finally recognizing that not all Americans celebrate Christmas–and, hell, not all of us are even Americans. But nevertheless it feels like, in a strange way, we’re still being asked to conform by participating in The Holiday Season even if we don’t have such a thing. (In fact, the Jewish version of the “holiday season” are the High Holidays in the fall.)

Despite these well-intentioned concessions, it’s still quite clear that Christmas reigns supreme among wintertime holidays. It feels weird knowing so much about something that has never been part of my life and never will.

3 comments

2 pings

  1. 1
    Brett McCoy

    It’s my understanding that Hannukah isn’t even that big of a holiday in Judaism but that pressure to “compete” with Christmas has pushed it sort into the spotlight more.

    I was very amused when my son asked we could get dreidls for Christmas (we’re non-religious so he doesn’t make the distinction)

  2. 2
    bcmystery

    I grew up in a conservative Midwest town myself, though I was a nominal Christian (and at times an active, self-identifying Christian). But when I was a kid, my best friend’s family were secular Jews who celebrated Christmas. The dad was kinda delighted by the whole thing, doing up the house in lights and garland and buying presents. He used to tell people, loudly, that they were the Christmas Jews.

    Mike, my friend, attended Catholic school, but was exempted from religious classes because he was a Jew (I don’t know how many Catholic schools do this, but I gather it’s pretty unusual). But he DID have to participate in the Christmas pageant and sing all the religious songs. I went to the show with his family one year because Mike played Joseph. His dad said, “At least they had the sense to cast an actual Jew for at least one of the parts.” Big laughs.

    The family also celebrated a number of Jewish holidays. I can’t remember most of them, but I did go to a few Seders over the years. They openly declared their atheism, but wanted to “stay connected to the tribe.” Over the years, it became increasingly clear to me that their cultural heritage was very important to them, even if they didn’t believe in God. In high school, after I took a comparative religion class and had a bit more actual knowledge (as compared to that semi-absorbed sorta-info I’d picked up by osmosis from hanging out over the years), I asked the dad why they celebrated Christmas.

    He laughed, but then he got serious and said, “You can’t fucking win in this country. So what the hell. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” For the first time I realized that for all the big laughs and “Christmas Jews” jokes, he felt a degree of bitterness about Christmas as well. I do think he genuinely liked some aspects of the the season, especially lights and decorations, but looking back it seems clear he also felt trapped by the weight of traditions that were clearly not his own. He made the best of it, I think, but I’ve always suspected a part of him, perhaps a big part of him, wished he didn’t have to.

  3. 3
    Francisco Bacopa

    Interesting article. I never really knew that New Year’s had been made into a pseudo-Christmas in Russia. Makes sense, and the celebration probably also served to emphasize the switch to the Gregorian calendar, as New Year’s Day would fall between the period between Christmas in the west and Christmas on the Julian calendar.

    I had a fairly close Jewish friend in high school and her mother was Russian, but I never thought to ask, questions about issues like this. As a not-quite-out atheist I usually avoided discussions of religion and culture out of fear. It was much easier to talk to my Muslim friends about such things as they were quite eager to bring up religious matters.

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