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Saturday, 24 December 2011

Jews, Christmas and Chanukah

When I was a young boy, I had a big sack with a picture of Santa on and my name engraved on it. Every year I would help prepare and decorate the Christmas cake – the picture you see here is me helping prepare it, aged 5. Our family would have a giant tree which we would decorate and when we woke on December 25th, my Santa sack would be absolutely full of presents, usually a mixture of books and Transformers.

Into my early teenage years the presents would come until one year in September or October I asked my Mum why we kept Christmas since, after all, we were a Jewish family. I was told that it was a parenting decision that had been made so that we didn’t feel left out at school. It’s a decision I can respect even if 60% of the pupils at my school at the time were Jewish. My parents didn’t want us to feel different or, specifically, for our difference to lead to any sense of exclusion.

I explained that I understood that reasoning but now that we had all grown up, why were we still celebrating Christmas? The answer was that it was a family tradition. That was an answer I wasn’t so keen on and so I broke with the family tradition and said that that year I wanted no Christmas presents - if the family insisted on giving presents, they could be at Chanukah. And so our family developed Chanumas. I would get Chanukah presents, my sisters would get Christmas presents and it would all be called Chanumas. That made me no happier either. Finally, I said that since my birthday was in December, I could get presents for my birthday and if people wanted to buy presents at any other time, they could do it for Purim, which is when Jews traditionally give presents anyway.

In his book Liberal Judaism, Eugene Borowitz specifically addresses the issue of Jews celebrating Christmas, describing it as an “offense against the Christian faith. A large number of Christians properly resent having a major holiday of their religion subverted by commerce and sentimentality, and, not infrequently, by our contemporary paganism.” When I first read these words perhaps ten years ago, I knew they were right. How would I feel if a non-Jew told me that they and their family were celebrating Pesach by cutting down a living tree, eating matzah for a day, and spending ridiculous amounts of money on toys and presents for children? I would probably be enraged. I would tell them not to make a mockery out of my religion and not to make it so crass with their consumerist cravings. 

My first response when I was younger – just move the present-giving to Chanukah – is just as problematic, because it turns a festival about light, hope and overcoming adversity (and, for adults, the challenges of religious extremism) into a festival like-Christmas-just-Jewish. In fact, it’s not even like-Christmas-just-Jewish, it’s more like-a-consumerist-pastiche-of-Christmas-just-Jewish – not very attractive at all. Sure, play with a dreidl, use gelt, have a bit of a flutter, but that’s a teaching tool for nes gadol hayah sham – “a great miracle happened there.” Having a new present every day for Chanukah doesn’t teach anything – it’s just aping a mockery of another religion’s festival. So many times in the past I’ve said and heard the phrase “We don’t need Christmas because we have eight days of presents” that I’m amazed that we don’t stop and reflect on what we’re saying – we lost Chanukah and we promoted the Christians’ loss of Christmas to the great market. The forces of secular consumerism claimed Chanukah and Christmas as their own because we allowed and encouraged them.

But why? Borowitz again – “That many Jews nonetheless are avid to be part of Christmas testifies to some deep need within them…. What they long for is an end to being different. They are tired of being outsiders. They want to be included, even if the expressions of goodwill are superficial and trite.” My mother was right – it was about not being different. But I want to be different, we should all want to be different. Do we really all want to be virtually identical consumer drones who flock annually to shopping centres to buy tat that is only going to be replaced in a few years but another “must buy” item of disturbingly similar but slightly advanced characteristics? Are we so afraid of being called Scrooge if we actually think that the consumerist Christmas and Chanukah are disturbed reflections of a sick society that we dare not say anything and just go with the flow? Of course, December 25th is a day when few people are at work so it’s a chance for a family day together. Everyone should relish that. But there’s a very big difference between a Jewish family that uses that time for everyone to get together for a big meal and a Jewish family that uses that time for crackers, turkey, tinsel, decorated trees and presents “because that’s what everyone else does.”

Interfaith families are, of course, different. But how many interfaith families truly show their children Christmas in church and Chanukah in synagogue? Anyone who says they have a tree and do presents because one of the partners is a Christian is not only kidding themselves but also their children and is also perpetuating the notion that religion is really equitable with consumerism. So, interfaith family or not, I would like to suggest that it’s about time Jews were more honest with themselves. Carrying on a religious family tradition is incredibly important so long as that tradition actually has religious merit. If it’s just shopping pretending to be religious, or paganism masking as monotheism (as in the case of a tree) that’s not only dangerous but insulting.

Ultimately, celebrating religious festivals is one way to step outside the mainstream society and to live with God. If a Christian family wants to give presents and then suggest why this reminds them of those who attended the manger and how they brought presents and then use that as a springboard for teaching about Christianity, I have no problem with that. Similarly, if Jews use Chanukah gelt to teach about Chanukah, fine. But Jews being consumers pretending to be Christians, that’s just shallow and sad.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this - as a Christian I feel that Christmas is far too commercial, though I admit that we have a tree and the number of presents this year seems more than ever! But we make plenty of time for remembering Jesus and going to church and it really wouldn't be Christmas without that for our family. I do think that for a lot of families that celebrate Christmas it's not "shopping pretending to be religious" - sadly far too many families ignore any religious element of Christmas at all.
    Interesting to read that presents at Chanukah is not an original tradition - I thought it was, so I've learned something new.
    Katie (Smith)

  2. 'A large number of Christians properly resent having a major holiday of their religion subverted by commerce and sentimentality, and, not infrequently, by our contemporary paganism' - To spread Christianity pagan festivals were adapted - local pagan deities were included in Christian imagery (e.g. The 'Green Man,' images of which are all over many Cathedrals, and other deities being transformed into Saints with their own special days to include them as part of the new faith). Christmas is clearly nothing to do with the birth of Christ as that (apparently) would have been in September, it was appropriated to make sure the locals wouldn't have less festivals and so reject Christianity. So, contemporary christians would have no right to get uppity about festivals being celebrated by secular society. This is a mid winter festival that was around long before Christianity. If they resent having 'their' festival being commercialised then they need to show that by example ('Would Jesus be buying this (and throwing it in the bin in six months time)?' is perhaps a question that needs to be asked). But overall I would agree - Chanukah is not Christmas, and it is good to set it apart as not being all about presents and greed which unfortunately is what Christmas has become.

    Happy Chanukah!