Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Do I Like Christmas? Nope!

One of the reasons why I love this country so much is because of its religious plurality. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Atheists can work side by side and, for the most part, get along quite well, even in spite of their differences. A lot of that amicability is due to the high levels of religious freedom that this nation offers. I can practice my religion without government interference, and my non-Jewish neighbors can do the same.

Just becuase I have great respect for the religious freedoms afforded by the First Amendment doesn't mean that I think that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.” I actually find it to be one of the most fastidious times of the year. Some would probably think that it’s because I’m a miserly Scrooge who doesn’t want to “get into the holiday cheer.”

It’s not that I’m miserly or that I’m a fictional character. It’s because I truly don’t want to get into the holiday cheer. I am a practicing Jew! I cannot emphasize that point enough. I grew up as a Catholic and had the holiday cheer. Since my conversion to Judaism, those days have long since past.

If you take Judaism or being Jewish seriously, there is no way you can celebrate Christmas. As my Christian friends remind me, there is a reason why they call it Christmas, and why we need to “put the ‘Christ’ back in Christmas.” Although the holiday has become secularized in this country, a point upon which I will elaborate momentarily, the primary reason for Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The notion of rejoicing in the alleged Immaculate Conception is highly problematic for a practicing Jew such as myself because the very notion of G-d being born is pagan in nature. The Jesus story is based on a combination of other myths from surrounding pagan cultures.  For instance, Attis was a Roman g-d born of the virgin Cybele on December 25thBoth Osiris and Dionysus were born from mortal virgins and both were claimed to be the son of G-d.  Even Krishna, the Hindu deity, was part of a trinity, was adopted by a human carpenter, and was considered to be a g-d-man. There are too many pre-Chrisian mythologies that have elements of the story of Jesus.  The amount of "coincidences" here just add up to the point where one can hardly consider it a coincidence.  Why is this problematic?  One of the cornerstones of Judaism is a belief in pure monotheism. To accept the Jesus story is 100% idolatry, which is a grave offense in Jewish law.

In spite of the holiday’s pagan origins, many Americans view the holiday as a secular celebration, as this poll from Lifeway, a Christian organization, suggests. Even if one could separate the religious aspects from it, which would be a difficult task unto itself, that doesn’t make Christmas any less annoying. The most popular secular part of Christmas is gift-giving. It also happens to be something I find exceptionally nauseating because it epitomizes the rampant materialism that is so prevalent in this country. Material wealth doesn’t buy happiness. More material goods do not translate into happiness. That is why short of those exceptionally poor people who cannot provide themselves with the most basic needs, there is no noticeable difference in happiness between the rich, middle-class, and the poor. And because of that, the euphoria of the one-day gift-giving frenzy peters off very quickly, most Americans return to their Prozac-popping, rat-racing, pedantic, mundane lives. If the “greatest joy of the year” is predicated on accruing material goods, then it’s no wonder that so many Americans are spiritually stymied and are incapable of understanding religion.

Also, can someone explain the concept of Secret Santa to me? It’s nothing more than a pathetic attempt at acquiring a feeling of altruism. If the gifts in Secret Santa are approximately the same amount for each person, then it’s really no different than buying the gift yourself. After all, the same amount of money came from your wallet. Secret Santa is merely a loophole in the appropriation of goods that makes somebody feel like they have a giving nature. If you truly have a giving nature, that would show in your actions year-round.

And who can forget the Christmas meal? All it illustrates is that Christmas is just another day for Americans to eat a ton of unhealthy food, watch a lot of TV (e.g., It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street), and to continue with the sedentary lifestyle that perpetuates the ever-rising costs in our healthcare system.

Christmas does, however, have one nice element. Many celebrate Christmas as time with family. Going back to the previously mentioned poll, that is what 81% of celebrators emphasize: family. And if your family lives on the other side of the country, that’s great. It gives a family a reason to meet up at least once a year. But it becomes very sad when that’s not the case. Many families either live within the same household or within driving distance. When this is the only time of year a family spends together, which does happen more often than a “head-in-the-clouds optimist” would ever like to admit, Christmas points out the decay of one of society’s most important institutions.

My final reason for why I cannot stand this time of year is when people think that Chanukah is the “Jewish Christmas.” It is nothing like Christmas. The fact that the 25th of Kislev, which is the first night of Chanukah, falls in proximity of December 25th does not make them identical. It is a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. It’s one of the few holidays during which a Jew can work. And the gift-giving aspect really kicked into gear so that secular Jews didn’t feel so left out during the holiday season.

What is Chanukah? Chanukah is primarily the celebration of a military victory a little over two millennia ago. One of the main lessons we derive from what led up to the militaristic upheaval is the fact that the traditionalist Jews beat out the Hellenistic Jews [that were trying to assimilate]. Because the Hellenistic Jews were hell-bent on making Judaism more like the surrounding culture, the Maccabees were set on making sure that Jewish tradition was not lost for good. The fact that Jews are taught to maintain their Jewish identity, rather than give into cultural assimilation, makes the analogy between the two holidays all the more based on ignorance.

Do I miss Christmas? Goodness, no! I don’t miss the heyday of having to go to packed stores to buy people presents. I don’t miss singing carols by the Christmas tree. I don’t even really miss getting presents.  And I definitely don't miss putting ornaments on the Christmas tree.  Do I need Christmas? Most certainly not! I have much more than Chanukah. I have Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Tu B’Shevat, Purim, Peasch, Shavuot, the list goes on. Not only do I have all of those holidays, I also get a holiday every week: Shabbat. For whatever joy I gave up for Christmas, which is nothing more than a blur of nostalgia at this stage in life, I have not only gained more holidays quantitatively, but the quality of the holidays is much more profound than anything I ever found celebrating Christmas.


  1. Your points are well-made and I couldn't agree more. Yet if I convert to Judaism, I will still probably have to buy presents for my Christian family, decorate a tree, receive presents, and sing carols regardless of my feelings on the subject, merely to maintain peace in the family (shalom bayit). I've tried telling them I don't want to receive any gifts, but that just makes me look churlish and facetious, since they are collectively bound and determined to give me gifts, and without my input the gifts will be terrible or useless. But I may finagle my way out of receiving Xmas gifts when I am more independent financially and emotionally from my family. Refusing to buy gifts for family and friends is another matter. I might always have the obligation to buy them for others even if I get out of receiving them myself. I can't find a reasonable way to bow out of the Christmas hoopla without causing a family rift, lest I appear, again, selfish, ungrateful, churlish, a Scrooge. Even when I was more-than-nominally a Christian, I thought that the massive buying and selling around Christmas was distasteful and antithetical to any sort of "Christmas spirit", but I don't know how to articulate that without sounding like an unpatriotic asshole. Suggestions?

  2. Mark, I have to agree with you having an easier time with this once you are no longer living with your parents. One of the lessons of Chanukah, which makes December all the more interesting, is that of not assimilating. Remember that balance we were talking about earlier between isolation and assimilation, better known as integration. Within that balance, a [practicing] Jew is not supposed to cross certain lines, such as eating pork, working on Shabbat, and that list does include celebrating Christmas. There is no way to reconcile Judaism with either the pagan origins of Christmas or the current Christianity tied to it. Just let your family know that as a Jew, there are certain things that are decidedly un-Jewish (rephrase that as "As a Jew, I cannot celebrate Christmas"), and Christmas is one of them. (As a side note, if it's between "honoring your mother and father" and violating Jewish law because of their directive, you disobey your parents in that situation) If it comes down to "this is a time of year to spend with family," let you family know there are other times of years that you spend with them without blatantly violating Jewish law. There's Thanksgiving or Fourth of July. Point being that you can still find ways to spend time with family [during holidays] without giving up Jewish practice or identity.