The Jewish Humanist, December 1976
A local Reform rabbi recently described to me his act of heroism and integrity. Invited last December to a family dinner at the home of a wealthy temple member, he was astounded to find, in the middle of the den, a small Christmas tree festively decorated. Although, as he clearly pointed out, his host was a large contributor to the building fund, m former vice-president of his congregation, and a Jewish community leader of immense power, the rabbi refused the holiday egg-nog and, in the presence of amazed witnesses, proceeded to denounce “this tasteless sham.” He reminded his host that fawning assimilation was no vehicle to Jewish self-esteem and excoriated him for having- failed to set a proper example as a leader. The next day his embarrassed member indignantly resigned and withdrew his financial support. Despite congregational pressure to make the rabbi recant and apologize my friend bravely refused to comply. “I will not sell my integrity for money,” he announced.
A cousin of mine confided in me last year that her neighbor, whom she had always regarded as intelligent and sensitive, had sent her a Christmas card. Although the card contained only some, innocuous poetry about the winter season, my cousin was deeply troubled by this religious boorishness. After all, Hanukkah greetings are easily available. It would have been so nice to have her Jewishness acknowledged in the same way that she took great pains to respect the “Christian” character of her neighbor’s home. (Of course, her neighbors never went to church and despised all of organized religion. But Christmas as Christmas is not Hanukkah.)
Several winters ago one of my Sunday School teachers chastised me for having referred to the annual winter recess in the presence of the children, as Christmas vacation. She protested that Jewish students are always assaulted by the barrage of Christian propaganda through the mass media and the programs of the public school. – The Temple, of all places, should be the one haven where the individuality of their own tradition is affirmed. “Christian vocabulary,” she asserted, “has no place in a Jewish school. We ought to make our children proud of their own holidays.”
These three incidents reveal a fundamental sociological truth. Christmas is a problem for most American Jews. In a culture where Jews are rapidly becoming an assimilated minority, this holiday season is never for us what it is for our Gentile friends – a time of family reunion and community goodwill. It is usually a season of guilty anxiety when our Jewish loyalty and commitment are publicly tested. Christmas decorations confront the Jewish parent, not as objects of beauty, but as devilish enticements, too seductive for the Jewish good. If only Christmas carols were not such lovely musical threats. If only Christmas trees could be uglier. It takes immense strength to resist such pleasant temptations, and we are bound to resent what is so delectable but forbidden.
Rabbis used to express their ritual concerns by denouncing violations of dietary laws and Sabbath rest. But in a milieu where dietary laws are for caterers and Sabbath observance is an activity of grandparents, the Christmas tree is the new -bite noir. Reform rabbis who have long since abandoned any form of Jewish ritual discipline and who eloquently announced the priority of ethics over ceremonial trivia, reveal a righteous indignation about the Jewish observance of Christmas that even civil rights, Vietnam, and a nuclear holocaust could never evoke. The Christian “enemy” must be resisted at all costs, even at the price of glorifying the ordinary. The deification of Hanukkah is a tribute to our fears. A minor winter festival, with its roots in a pagan fascination with lights and with its historical justification tied to a shabby battle between two kinds of religious fanatics, has been elevated in America to the highest of ritual heights. Yom Kippur pales before its current splendor – Passover cannot touch its expenditures. As the Jewish answer to Christmas in a child-centered culture, it has wildly succeeded. It has become the annual badge of identity.
My rabbi friend, who preferred integrity to money, revealed in a recent temple bulletin the reasons why Jews should have nothing at all to do with Christmas. It is clear, he says, that Christmas is a Christian holiday, intimately tied to the story of Jesus’ virgin birth and ‘inevitably bound to the dogmatic beliefs of the historic Church. To celebrate Christmas is to symbolically affirm one’s identity with this tradition, as well as one’s agreement with its principles Christ is not separable from Christmas. In fact, Protestant and Catholic clergymen are valiantly resisting the efforts of the religiously indifferent and the crassly commercial to turn the occasion into a mere secular holiday of goodwill, devoid of any theological meaning. They want to “put Christ back into Christmas.” And we as Jews ought to respect their effort. We ought to help them in their struggle for religious purity by keeping our “unbelieving Jewish hands” off their sacred festival. We have our own holiday. We don’t need theirs.
In fact, the rabbi says, Jewish observance of Christmas only excites Christian contempt. Many obsequious early Reformers imagined that, if they imitated their Gentile neighbors and pretended to be less conspicuously Jewish, they would more readily win the social approval they desired. But just the opposite occurred. The more they imitated, the more they tried to affirm their identity with the majority culture, the less they achieved the respect and admiration they craved. Without authenticity they were contemptible beggars of community acceptance. The authentic Jew, who proudly affirmed his difference, was much more likely to be successful at finding approval.
The classic Reform indulgence of a Jewish Christmas, our bulletin writer suggests, was an expression of the immense self-hate that pervaded the psyche of an insecure and vulnerable minority. Self-respecting people are not afraid of difference and are not obsessed by the need for community acceptance. Christmas decorations in a Jewish home are pitiful, not so much because they violate religious requirements, but especially because they reveal the fear and self-contempt of their owners. Jewish dignity is always expressed in the willingness to assert Jewish identity under all conditions. Proud people do not hide behind, another person’s inheritance. They use their own.
It is certainly true, the rabbi maintains, that there are major religious differences between Judaism and Christianity. For Jews to celebrate Christian holidays, or for Christians to observe Jewish festivals, is to ignore these historic distinctions` and to treat religion lightly. The Jewish refusal to observe Christmas is an expression of, an ideological reality. To pretend to agree when .there is no agreement, to express unity when there is no unity, is to indulge futile gestures that feebly hide the truth. Honesty requires us to subscribe to no false brotherhood.’ We are honor bound to affirm our difference and the symbols of our difference.
Nor can we forget, the writer continues, the immense suffering our people have endured at the hands of official Christianity. Peace and goodwill may be the propaganda of Christmas; but they have nothing at all to do with the reality of Christian behavior toward Jews. The holidays of the Christian calendar are too intimately identified with the blood of our martyrs for us to practice them without guilt and hostility. We cannot erase the memories of two thousand years and reverse our conditioning. If we are sometimes angrily parochial, we are amply justified.
Perhaps. Yet the answers of our bulletin writer rest on a false assumption. It is assumed throughout his discussion that Jews have an option that they are free not to celebrate Christmas. But no option exists. All Jews in America must celebrate Christmas in some fashion or other. Since our whole American culture makes of this holiday a national festival, more Jews abstain from work on Christmas (through no choice of their own) than stay home for Rosh Hashana. All work stops; all business closes. Even Jewish families are forced to be together and to eat together. Some of our people celebrate the day with uncomfortable hostility, wasting its potential. Others relax in the pleasures of family reunion and hospitality, savoring its secular opportunities. Like the Sabbath in Israel, even nonbelievers have to observe it as a day of rest. If we are honest about the holiday question, we never ask: should American Jews celebrate Christmas. We rather inquire: how should American Jews celebrate Christmas (even if it means spending the whole day making invidious comparisons with Hanukkah or self-pityingly denouncing anti-Semitism).
Given the fact that Christmas is a holiday for Western Jews, however imposed, rabbis cannot close their eyes to its presence. Even Reconstructionists wax eloquent with programs for Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving. But Christmas as a national day of leisure is conspicuously ignored. It is as though the experience is too painful to acknowledge or too embarrassing to admit. After all the protestations about the virtues of Hanukkah, no one takes off for Hanukkah, but Christmas ends up as our day of rest. Even the dullest child can see the power of that difference. One fact is clear. Hanukkah is no substitute for Christmas. First of all, it rarely ever falls on Christmas Day. And secondly, after one has finished with eight days of candles, dreidels, gifts, potato pancakes, and holiday-streamers, Hanukkah is a second-rate aesthetic experience next to its rival. As a winter festival for northern climates, Christmas with all its greenery, lights, and snowy songs is incomparable. Not even Judah Maccabee and his brave brothers can change that reality. (If only they had been a ski patrol and worshiped evergreens)
As long as we Jews have to celebrate Christmas, we might as well enjoy it. Instead of moping around with useless guilt and sour-grapes jealousy, we ought to make Christmas as comfortable for Jews as possible. In this regard the “religiously indifferent” and the “crass commercialists” are our allies. It is absolutely ludicrous and masochistic for Jews to attempt to reverse historical evolution and to “put Christ back into Christmas.” Why should we want to encourage a parochial mythology at the expense of a universal ethical message? Why should we allow stuffy and irrelevant clergymen to wreck Christmas? Is it not enough that the historic Church took-a perfectly charming Roman festival of the winter solstice and ruined it by identifying it with a myth about gods and mangers that had to be taken literally? Are we then to regret the death of the story? Ought we not to rejoice that young American children (despite their priests’ and ministers) prefer Jingle Bells to crèches? Japan has evolved a Christless Christmas which has become one of the major festivals of its calendar year. The Japanese have made of the holiday what they wanted to make of it – to serve their needs – without guilt or anguish.
Just as Christianity took the Roman “Christmas” and transformed-it to serve Christian needs; so can modern secularists use it to express humanistic needs. With millions of non-Christian Christmas observers in Russia, Japan and in Western Europe, and with the inevitable assault of the scientific age on all mythologies, our winter festival ought to inevitably evolve into an aesthetically charming holiday of international goodwill devoid of any serious theological implications. Of course, the Christian legend will linger indefinitely. But it will be on the defensive. A delicious irony will have evolved. Like Chinese food, the holiday will become more pleasurable for the tourists than for the natives. If such a procedure hardly seems “cricket”, the Christian traditionalists, given their past record of sympathy for others, richly deserve it.
Nor can the argument of Christian contempt be a telling one. Jews who observe a secular Christmas are no more contemptible to the hordes of Gentiles who are equally secular than Jews who •indulge Halloween, Valentine’s Day, or Thanksgiving. Christmas trees are no more religiously compromising than painted eggs for Easter. The charge of self-hate is equally absurd. On the contrary, the desperate attempt to avoid “contamination” with Christian symbols is the sign of self-doubt. It is no affirmation of self-esteem. Unwilling to forego the pleasures of assimilation, Jewish parents feebly protest their tribal loyalty every Hanukkah by the vehemence with which they resist Christmas. A self-confident Jew has no fear that a secular Christmas will destroy his identity. He is terrified by no ceremonial trivia and is afraid of no cosmopolitan experiment. As a Jewish humanist, free to demythologize whatever is aesthetically indispensable, he feels no need to be restrictive. He can celebrate and enjoy both Hanukkah and Christmas.
The either-or alternatives of distinct ideologies are quite irrelevant to the realities of contemporary religious belief. Educated Jews and Christians are much closer to each other in their humanistic dispositions than they are to the more traditional uneducated members of their respective denominations. Jewish and Christian belief on the university level are not very distinct. Hanukkah and Christmas emerge only as aesthetic options identified with childhood memory and family loyalty. To convert them into irreconcilable symbols is to distort the truth. It is to turn ideological molehills into ceremonial mountains.
Nor is Christian persecution a sufficient reason for the rejection of Christmas. If the holiday season had retained its historic theological significance, the reaction would be appropriate. But as the official winter festival of a secular Western culture, it survives primarily as a ceremonial opportunity for cozy goodwill. Despite the pleas of a vocal pious minority, its humanistic evolution is inevitable in the end it will turn out to be a repudiation of the very myth that sponsored it. It will slowly transfer its attention from the vocabulary of divine-grace to the reality of human love.
The Jewish hang-upon Christmas is a function of Jewish guilt. Ambivalent about assimilation and yet committed by his ambition to total integration, the modern American Jew finds it difficult to mediate between his past and future. His aggressiveness for Hanukkah and against Christmas is an expression of self-delusion. It helps sustain the fantasy that he has preserved the religious uniqueness he has long since abandoned. It makes him feel terribly Jewish without any real effort – and without any real insight.
A rational Jew accepts the fact that he celebrates Christmas. Since this ceremonial truth neither disturbs him nor frightens him, he desires to evaluate it fairly. He knows that, as a universal holiday Christmas has no peers. It transcends all national boundaries and unites millions of Christians and non-Christians in a worldwide celebration of goodwill. As a humanist, he is delighted by this development and works to make Christmas less Christian. As a Jew, he also celebrates and enjoys Hanukkah, but is wise enough to realize that it is no adequate substitute for its sister holiday. He does not view these festivals as mutually exclusive but sees then as complementary companions. If he is a parent, he will not deny his child either opportunity and has no objection to the celebration of a secular Christmas within the framework of his Sunday School, temple, or public school. He even welcomes humanistic procedures for Christmas as he welcomes then for Thanksgiving. In short, he is aware that he is more than Jewish, and accepting that “more” makes him feel a more effective and more understanding person.