As a Jewish kid, I felt like an outsider during Christmas time. As an adult, I’ve finally decided to stop complaining and embrace Christmas
Every holiday season anti-Christmas thoughts pop into my head. I’ve realized they spring from a contempt I’ve had for Christmas since I was a kid, growing up as a Jew in a predominately Christian town in New Jersey.
I had a new anti-Christmas thought the other day while I was tightening the screws into the trunk of our Christmas tree. It went like this: Only a gentile would kill a tree, bring it home, watch it turn brown, and then throw it out on the curb.
It’s not true, of course, about gentiles and their trees. All religions have silly traditions. Jews and Muslims sacrifice their foreskins, for Christ’s sake. So in comparison, murdering a Christmas tree just for the fun of it seems harmless.
Christmas was depressing growing up. We would eat Chinese food and go to the movies. What else are you going to do? I remember driving around with my family on the quiet streets, passing the lifeless stores and restaurants. It felt like everyone except you and your family had been invited to the best party of all time.
I imagined how my friends celebrated. Waking their parents up at dawn, they would be jumping two steps at a time down the stairs, and diving into a mess of presents, wrapping paper, and ribbons. They would eat Christmas ham and play with their new toys the entire day. Finally they would fall asleep near the Christmas tree, the fireplace warming their gentile souls, and the soft melody of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” playing into the night.
My family wasn’t at all religious. My siblings and I were raised as cultural Jews. We were connected more to our heritage as Eastern European Jews than to the religious beliefs that come with Judaism. We did go to Hebrew School, had Bar Mitvahs, and celebrated Hanukkah, Passover, and the High Holy Days, but we weren’t kosher, didn’t wear kippot, and hadn’t visited Israel. Sure we could read Hebrew, but we didn’t know the meaning of the words. But we were Jewish enough to feel different.
And we never felt more different than at Christmas time. In the weeks leading up to the Winter Concert at school we sang Christmas songs. I remember the pain of singing “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night”. They were a tease because no matter how much I sang, Santa Claus wasn’t going to come to my house. Besides, the lyrics were oh so joyful.
We also had a “holiday tree” at school, which was a regular Christmas tree with a few Stars of David and a dreidel thrown onto a few branches. My father suggested to the principal that they call the “holiday tree” a Christmas tree because, he told him, “Jews don’t have trees and don’t celebrate Christmas.” I vaguely remember a big Menorah that stood in the corner of the hallway outside of the gymnasium. It, like I, felt very much out of place.
Now I live in Sweden, and I feel more out of place than ever, but in a good way. My Swedish wife, who like most Swedes is Christian, absolutely loves Christmas. She asked me recently, while I was tightening that screw into the trunk of our Christmas tree, why I didn’t like Christmas.
At first, I was defensive. “Who me? I love Christmas.” But after some thought, I admitted out loud that after all of these years, I was still resentful that I never got to celebrate Christmas in my childhood. I was still that little kid looking out onto the quiet streets, wishing I was on the inside celebrating Christmas like all of my friends.
Once I started thinking about my relationship with Christmas, I had to admit, when I finally allowed myself, that I liked Christmas. I appreciate the music and all of the lights. The tree does look cozy in the corner and the cured salmon, herring, and Swedish meatballs are delicious. And I enjoy opening presents.
On Christmas in Sweden, we drink snaps, dance around the Christmas tree, and prepare a julbord, which is like a smorgasbord that includes some special Christmas dishes. I am no longer an outsider. The holiday season is now neither lonely nor depressing. But deep down in my Jewish bones, I’m still clinging on to my otherness; it seems somehow to define me.
I’ve decided my attitude towards Christmas is hypocritical. I love to hate it, but hate to love it. So I’ve made a pre-New Year’s resolution this holiday season. This year, I’ll try to accept and embrace Christmas. I will let go of the painful holiday seasons of my childhood.
Once the New Year has arrived and the Christmas spirit has faded, I will carry the dead fern through the front door and toss it out on the curb. I will admit to anyone who is willing to listen, that although I’m not a gentile, I enjoyed Christmas.