Joy to the World

Goodbye to My Jewish Christmas

Can I make peace with America’s yuletide obsession?

By Emily Alhadeff Illustrations by Guang Lim Published in the Winter 2021 issue of Seattle Met

MY favorite Christmas ornament was a white plastic globe, inside which a tiny Snoopy skis down a mini mountain, Woodstock looking on from his doghouse perch. I made sure it stayed front and center, despite my mother’s attempts to class up our tree with gold ribbons and Victorian bulbs. With a fire burning in the woodstove, John Denver and the Muppets warbling “Silent Night,” we could have been any American family.

We could have been, had my mother followed through on her abandonment of Judaism. Like many Jewish baby boomers, she grew up with a Judaism that was thick with rules but thin on meaning. Off at college—a luxury not afforded her first-generation parents—she fell for a straight-haired, straitlaced WASP whose family lineage literally traced back to the Mayflower and the American Revolution. Despite her commitment to raising a child free of religious restrictions, something in her Ashkenazi DNA jumped when she walked in on little me setting up a nativity scene with her mother-in-law one winter evening. In short order, I was parked in a small plastic chair at the temple preschool. 

Image: Guang Lim

Armed with some semblance of a Jewish identity, I, like many children of baby boomers, became Jewish-and: I could munch matzo at Passover and gorge on Peeps at an Easter egg hunt. I could leave cookies and a glass of milk for Santa, carrots for his hardworking reindeer by my grandparents’ fireplace, and stare down the Hanukkah candles as they devolved into waxy, molten globs of color. Most important, I could brag to my non-
Jewish friends in my small-town Connecticut elementary school that my life was the best because I got all the holidays and, therefore, all the presents.

But every year, through the foggy window of a school bus smelling of exhaust and vinyl, there was my classmate Tim’s house—its front door draped in a front-door-sized quilt announcing, “Jesus is the reason for the season!” While the rest of the world was participating in a monthlong orgy of eggnog and mall trips, Tim’s family had to go and remind everyone that it’s really about a man who died on a cross to save humanity’s sins. What a bunch of grinches, I thought.

Still, it nagged at me. I wondered if it was hypocritical—if not disrespectful—to partake in the celebration of Christianity with a wish list that included the Barbie Corvette and a Hypercolor T-shirt. Maybe there’s something to epigenetics, or maybe I’ve just always liked to be countercultural. Somehow I knew that while Christmas may be magic, it was only on loan.

 

The yuletide holiday has a mythic hold on the American imagination: Pajama-clad families gather around a pine-scented tree and tear through shiny red wrapping paper. They while away the frosty morning sipping coffee and nibbling syrup-soaked bacon before heading out to the yard to try the new bikes Santa somehow stuffed down the chimney. America loves Christmas. I am American. Ergo, I should love Christmas.

For generations of Jewish Americans before me, this national obsession feels more like a selective country club. Those who celebrate Christmas might unlock the proverbial doors and obtain full citizenship from “other” to “us.” In the meantime, they built up Hanukkah, a sideshow of a holiday that is actually about Jewish rebels fighting the dominant culture and taking back their religion. It doesn’t even make sense as Christmas’s nerdy cousin when, in years like 2021, it falls at the end of November.

Christmas, on the contrary, is the greatest unifier, the fullest expression of America’s vision of itself as inclusive, peaceful, happy, and plentiful. Christmas seeps out of America’s pores: Giant decorated trees sprout up in office lobbies and shopping centers. In so-called secular Seattle, stores pump Christmas songs through speakers into the streets. Joy to the world! Peace on Earth! Fa-lalalala-lalalala! Their reconciliatory themes are practically lifted from Jewish prayer. These messages should bring relief to a bunch of people brutalized century after century by historical celebrants of this very holiday, right?

Being Jewish in America, I came to learn and internalize as the years went on, is hard to reconcile with a seasonal Christian identity. While we may have successfully acculturated, being Jewish also means being trapped in a store listening to songs that actually use sleigh bells as a percussion line. Other times it means having well-intentioned friends gently urge you to get to know Jesus. It means looking around your synagogue and assessing where the exits are in case it becomes an active shooter situation, and getting updates from the FBI on who those shooters might be. It means the not-too-distant memory of exiles from various lands, and always knowing where your passport is. It means discussing why your people have the right to self-determination only to be called a Nazi. To be a Jew in America is to prove that you have fully assimilated—and then have someone remind you that it’s conditional.

It also means recognizing that this is literally the best stretch of Jewish history of all time so shut up and stop making a scene. How can I drag all this baggage around and then show up to the office Christmas party with a reindeer sweater and a plate of sugar cookies? In such a case, Christmas becomes a sort of fun house mirror, one to look at myself in and laugh at the distortion.

 

Christmas’s magical luster dulled for me by shades. It was my Jesus-loving friends, and the vaguely anti-Semitic comments from teachers, and the dismissal of Jewish history as anything more than neurosis and bagels. Let’s not forget Tim’s mom’s door quilt thing, and, yes, Santa, whose wish list–inducing presence pushed me to think about my choice to pick up my baggage and carry it around intentionally and proudly. As a theology student, I became fluent in Hebrew, prayer, and history (a never-ending journey, to be clear). I could finally put words to my childhood defensiveness. If I decided not to run off into the sunset with my yuletide paramour, then what was I left with? What did I stand for? Or, as the ancient sage Hillel put it, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

Image: Guang Lim

Now Christmas no longer lures me with its staged Instagram posts of a perfect life. As America’s capitalist impulse rings louder, the pop carols resonating through the streets feel more like a cry for help beneath the jinglejangle.

Yet there is still part of me who is that child hanging the Snoopy ornament on the tree with my wonderful parents in a cozy home listening to a Muppets Christmas cassette tape. While I have my own family now, which is anchored in a strong Jewish community that gives us the luxury of mostly ignoring Christmas, December still happens every year like a monthlong peppermint blast to the face. We are left to create—or more accurately, discover—our own traditions. So a few years ago we started driving out to Lake Chelan during winter break for not-Christmas. We ice skate, sip hot chocolate, sometimes see snow, and on the evening of December 24, we watch…Christmas movies. We are Americans, for Christ’s sake.

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