Saturday, December 26, 2009

Jews Celebrating Christmas

There's been a video making the rounds that I watched with Shiksa Girlfriend:

Short version: Secular woman from immigrant Chinese family celebrates Christmas and says its symbols, especially a Christmas tree are meaningful to her. Her (not very religious) Jewish boyfriend says Christmas is a religious Christian holiday and he would never feel comfortable having one in his home. The woman says she has agreed to raise Jewish kids, but feels like she's getting the short end of the stick. The letter ends with each of them claiming emotional heartbreak.

Prudence first tries to split the difference, acknowledging that the woman and man are basically articulating the two split identities Christmas has come to occupy in the American consciousness. But she then says that the boyfriend has a "truer understanding of the meaning of the day" and that the fact that he doesn't want to participate in watering down the holiday is a "sign of respect." She concludes by saying that the girlfriend should celebrate Christmas with her family but not try to force her holiday on her boyfriend.

Gila at My Shrapnel thinks this is a great response:

I fully expected a PC response about how her boyfriend should open up to the wonders of a secular Christmas--the general line fed to us by the media. I was pleasantly surprised by her response. She gets it. Christmas is a Christian religious holiday. And if you want Jewish kids, you raise them in a Jewish house--celebrating Jewish religious holidays.

There is also the issue of disrespect to Christians. Having had a few devout Christian friends over the years, and having spent a year living with a very devout Christian, I cannot help but think that if I were Christian I would find this practice of non-Christians appropriating Christmas as a non-religious holiday a bit offensive. Think about it. Christmas is the the day in which believers celebrate the birth of Christ and the birth of their faith, a new era and so on. This is one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar, no? How can it possibly be respectful to effectively say "Yeah, well, I think your religion and your version of G-d is so much bullshit, but hey, I'll take the tree. And the gifts."

I think the problem here is that both Prudence and Gila are insisting on viewing Christmas through explicitly religious lenses as a way to rationalize non-Christian discomfort with the holiday. It would be one thing if the woman was a devout Christian. But she's not, she's explicitly coming from a secular perspective. For her Christmas isn't about Jesus, it's about family. What's really disrespectful is lecturing her on what Christmas is "really about," or pretending that the important thing here is not offending imaginary Baptists somewhere (which, going out on a limb, I'm going to say the Jewish boyfriend probably doesn't care about, either). What she cares about is wanting the boyfriend to participate in her family's ritual, which happens to not have (from her POV) a very religious context.

A better and more honest conversation, IMO, (and I say this as someone whose Jewish family has put out stockings on Christmas going back four generations) would be for the boyfriend to acknowledge that, particularly when one is a secular-ish Jew, part of your identity is created and shaped as much as by things you don't do as by thing you do do. This is why even though my father introduced my mother (also Jewish) to his family's stockings tradition many years ago, he still balks at having a tree (this year he finally broke down and bought Christmas lights, but rather than buying some plant-like thing to put them on, festooned them across the mantle-piece instead). My father knows that no one in our family thinks Christmas is about Jesus, but a tree is still a red line for him-- as it is for me. This has recently been in my thoughts because Shiksa Girlfriend has mentioned that in the event we wind up spitting out some mini-Yids, her parents would want them to celebrate Christmas in at least some capacity. Yet, interestingly, this was said in the same breath as her dramatically declaring that she had no intention of lying to them about Santa Claus and saying that personally, she liked Hanukkah a lot more than Christmas anyway. As we can see, holidays, symbols and identity issues are hardly clear-cut.

I am thankful that in my childhood I had the opportunity to participate in and celebrate other people's Christmases-- helping my godparents buy and decorate their tree, going to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day parties, etc., but I would not feel comfortable going that last step and putting a tree in my home. I feel comfortable including elements of both, but I don't want to negate that last bit of different-ness or separate-ness. I like that separateness and like that it helps me remember who I am. Having a tree would feel like I was erasing that.

IMO, my feelings about a Christmas tree are not connected with the idea that Christmas is ALWAYS, or exclusively, a religious Christian holiday. I am well aware that it means different things to different people-- including my secular Shiksa Girlfriend (and the girlfriend in the video letter). And in that capacity, I can find ways for wiggle room and ways that I feel comfortable participating. But I am also reflective enough to recognize that despite the fact that Christmas can be interpreted in different ways, a tree still makes me uncomfortable, because it is not one of my family's traditions, and not one I particularly want to include in my home. I think that's a good enough reason for the boyfriend to not want to do it-- though the possibility of compromise should still exist (and if neither are interested in doing so, this may be a warning sign about further issues to come).


Anonymous said...

Christmas Trees are Pagan in origin anyway... It's about as religious as a Fesitvus pole...

The back of the hill said...

I grew up with a non-religious Christmas. Everybody else did Sinterklaas (December 6th.), we did Christmas, because we were Americans (meaning actually that my parents both had fond memories involving Christmas, and were not vested in Sinterklaas). To the neighbors, Christmas was all about little baby you know what. To my brother and me, it was gifts and turkey, and a tree that was purchased at the beginning of December, and if still alive planted in the yard sometime in January.

The point is that he is marrying a woman for whom Christmas is not a religious holiday. The tree is not a religious symbol, though it may function as a symbol of the holiday and therefore of the religious connotation. I suspect that irrespective of the tree, there will be "midwinter" gifts, a roast bird, and stuff like that.
Maybe instead they should set aside part of the house for "heathen practises of which the other partner rather disapproves". That way the thing won't be central, and the "sane" partner still has a measure of A) plausible deniability; and B) witchcraft-free comfort zone.