by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
I have changed my mind about Xmas. A few years ago I wrote a piece excoriating those Jews who celebrated it, because it was a Christian festival whose undertones were anti-Semitic. I fancied an exaggerated scenario. In a winter pine tree-clad Bavarian hilltop village, a sweet Aryan couple has been cast out onto the streets by dark-skinned, hook-nosed Jews, who own all the real estate. They find refuge in a Northern European style country barn, together with Friesian and Guernsey cows and a few Welsh sheep, where a beautiful, fair-haired Aryan baby is born. Wise men from all over the world come to worship the child. Only the nasty Jews are so stubborn they can’t see who he really is, so they hound him until he is nailed to a cross. To make matters worse when I was a child I went briefly to a State village school in Berkshire where I was the only Jew. I was given a really hard time because when they put up the Manger at Christmas time I dared to declare that I did not think the baby Jesus was the most lovable child in the world.
The fact is that Xmas represents a religion that for thousands of years has vilified, attacked, and massacred Jews simply because of their different beliefs. That was my case then. And I extolled the American practice of having study-ins over the Xmas period and using the opportunity for creative, constructive education instead of silly self-indulgence. No doubt I was also reacting against the deep psychological trauma of disappointment when as a five year old I hung out a stocking on Xmas eve in the hope that Santa would fill it, only to find it empty and be told off roundly by my father the following day.
The experience of living in America has changed me! We have just experienced eight days of Chanuka where you see a menorah in every store, in every apartment building, on almost every street corner. You are greeted on the radio, the television, by your doorman, and everyone else with “Happy Hanookar”, and at worst it’s “Happy Holidays”, so that you can include Kwanza too. Not to mention Chanuka postage stamps and stickers on your mail. There’s a pleasant air of goodwill, as well as commercial mania, that altogether has little to do with Jesus or the Maccabees or even the Jews. But it has a lot to do with being accepted and feeling one belongs rather than rejected and alien, which is still quite common in Europe and is one reason why so many Anglo Jews are so cringingly defensive, insecure and frankly ashamed of their Jewishness.
Even in the USA we are occasionally brought back to earth with a bump when one or other of the Evangelical commentators or presidential candidates comes out and declares the Jews are doomed to hell unless they wake up and see the light! But then they are made to feel the insensitive fools they are by most commentators and they usually end up manifestly embarrassed by the nonsense of their religious dogma. Still, the craziness persists.
Despite all that, my opposition has softened. First came Thanksgiving. It too started as a religious occasion. The Pilgrims suffered through their first winter in the Promised Land and then gave thanks for the harvest that would tide then through the next. Thanksgiving became part of American culture and everyone eats turkey and cranberry sauce (except the vegetarians of course who eat seitan and soya and other indigenous nutritional products). Even in some very Orthodox circles Thanksgiving is celebrated, and responsa have been written by distinguished rabbis authorizing a turkey meal, although under another name because Heaven forefend we should imitate others.
In New York this is particularly important where people tend to hide away in their high-rise isolation. We went round to visit others that we wouldn’t normally get to on Shabbat and it was a delightful social experience. If, in addition, it is combined with studying Torah and words of wisdom, what could be a nicer and more uplifting experience? And a big mitzvah, too, if it includes the sick, the elderly, or the lonely–even if it originated with the experiences of some very, very frum Christians.
So why not the same thing on Xmas? It’s a public holiday, an opportunity to be sociable when you can travel, unlike on Shabbat and festivals, and you can get together with friends and eat good food and discuss the Talmud. Not only but I know quite a few Jews who stand in or man hospitals and emergency services on Xmas to give non-Jews a break, or help in shelters. That’s a mitzvah, even if it also gives you credit at work. In the past many Jews would fast on Xmas, but nowadays why not enjoy a national holiday, a day off? And you could have a siyyum, a meal to celebrate finishing a tractate of the Talmud, and that’s a mitzvah too! Of course, Christmas trees are silly. Why cut down a perfectly healthy tree, designed for the outdoors, to mess up your carpets? Chanuka bushes are even more ridiculous. But if you are confident in your Judaism and you experience the warmth and intensity of Shabbat and Festivals throughout the year, then come on, surely a tree isn’t going to corrupt you. Oh yes, I did forget about all those Asherot and Pagan Groves and Druid mistletoe and human sacrifices. So perhaps the trees really are out of place in a Jewish home, certainly if they have a baby Jesus lurking around.
Now, Easter is different. Easter records the crucifixion and resurrection, and it was always around Easter time that preachers whipped up their audiences into a righteous frenzy of hatred against the Jews. Crusaders, the monk Rhindfleisch, Count Emicho, even Chmielnicki–they all massacred Jews around Easter time. So, for goodness’ sake, leave off those chocolate bunnies. But this time of the year? Enjoy. After all it is all about the Winter Solstice really, as all good Pagans know!