Christmas at Arm’s Length

Interfaith and InclusiveAs always, as an interfaith community, our aim is not to meld, mash-up, mix, water-down or confuse our two religions. Instead, we strive to celebrate each holiday, whether Jewish or Christian, with full respect and all the trimmings. So how and why are these celebrations different from those you would find in any church or synagogue? Often, we begin and end a celebration by reciting our interfaith responsive reading, which is not a statement of creed, but a recognition that some of us are Jews, some of us are Christians, some of us have interfaith identities, and we are all equal members of this community. For me, simply knowing that we are an interfaith community changes my perception of any event: ancient rituals, songs and prayers, shimmer with the newness of radical inclusivity.

-Susan Katz Miller
“Lessons and Carols: Interfaith Community”
On Being Both

It’s Sunday morning as I write this and I’m avoiding church until January. Why? Because of Christmas.

Wait! Let me explain.

While Susan Katz Miller belongs to a community that can honor the different religious observances of its members, I’ve been attending a more traditional Baptist church. I remember hearing about how some of the church members participated in an anti-abortion rally at a new Planned Parenthood building some months back. Among the protesters were people from local Mormon and Catholic churches. My Pastor spoke of the event, but I don’t recall if it was from the pulpit or in a personal conversation with me. He said that a Catholic Priest was one of the speakers at the event and the Priest addressed the group with words something like, “We are all believers” or “We are all Christians.”

The point my Pastor had to make, representing the general perspective of our church, is that, because of the significant theological differences involved, he doesn’t consider Catholics and Mormons as “fellow believers” but rather, as those who are outside the Christian “camp.” Sure, they all came together at the event because of a common purpose, but the barriers constructed between those different faith communities, as far as he was concerned, were firm and inviolate.

I don’t say this to speak poorly about my Pastor or the church I attend. I consider him and the people I worship with to be truly devoted to God and desiring to serve Him in all that they do. However, there are distinct boundaries that contain the church and one may cross those barriers only at their own risk.

Almost a month ago, I called myself a Christian who studies Messianic Judaism. What that means in a nutshell, is that I am a non-Jewish believer in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and that I choose to study the Bible within a framework that takes into account the Jewish environment, perspectives, customs, and culture in which the Bible was authored, using that as a lens in filtering my view of Jesus.

As you might imagine, that somewhat crosses one or more of the barriers that contains my church’s theology and doctrine. My periodic meetings and conversations with my Pastor attest to the differences between us, and we’ve been honest that we are both trying to convince the other of our individual points of view.

I must say, I’m learning a lot, not only about church history and the development of fundamentalism in Christianity, but about my own opinions and where they come from. You never learn more about what you believe and why than when you are required to defend it.

Children's Christmas PageantPastor and his wife are spending the rest of the month (or most of it) in Florida to celebrate Christmas with his family. It will certainly be warmer than the December I’ve been experiencing here in Idaho. But that leaves behind Christmas at the church and today (as I write this) there won’t even be Sunday School.

There will be the Children’s Christmas Pageant. The kids have been practicing for about a month and I’m sure they’re looking forward to their big moment.

But that was several days ago as you read this, even though as I am writing, it is still before dawn on Sunday morning.

My family and I left Christmas behind about ten years or so ago and we’ve never looked back. That’s pretty much a given for my wife and kids since they’re Jewish. My married son’s wife is very much into Christmas and while my son doesn’t resist her efforts to put up a tree, lights, and decorations, he doesn’t participate either. The rest of my family just tries to ignore the season, although one of my sister-in-laws has been sending email Christmas cards of a humorous nature to the missus.

I quoted Miller’s blog post because it is a portrait of not blending together different faith traditions into a mixing bowl, but rather, interfaith families choosing to honor each other’s traditions and celebrations without having to surrender anything about their own.

Another member of our community confessed to me this week that he had bought his wife a Christmas present for the first time, after decades of marriage. A most loving and supportive husband, as a Jew he just had not been able to transcend the bitter history of religious conflict and wrap his head around the idea of a Christmas gift. He credited our interfaith community with his shift in thinking, and his ability to finally arrive, bearing a gift from afar.

I never said it was easy, but apparently, it’s possible. It requires a certain amount of willingness and a great deal of courage to overcome the fears and inhibitions of a lifetime. I don’t have a community like that either in my family or corporately, and even if I had access to a corporate community, attendance would conflict with my home life. I’m not even sure how my family tolerates my attending an “ordinary” church.

I’ve chosen a path that I believe is right and that I believe is right for me. In doing so, I have to walk away from all other paths. I suppose, from an outside observer’s point of view, it must look like I’m trying to walk both sides of the street, Christianity and Judaism. This actually isn’t the case. My wife and any Jewish person I’ve ever encountered, consider me a Christian, and so I am. A Christian is simply a person (typically non-Jewish) who has faith that the Jesus Christ of the Bible is the promised Savior and Messiah and the one who will return as the King of Israel and the world.

The only difference, and it’s a big one, is that my perspective of how I perceive God, Messiah, the Bible, and everything all that means, is substantially different from most of the traditional Church (big “C”). Most religious communities permit little or no permeability of their distinctive boundaries and barriers that contain who they are and keep out everyone else. The price of admission is to adopt the theologies, doctrines, and dogmas within their specific container and disavow everything else.

But my container is somewhat unique. Oh sure, a lot of other people occupy my container (more or less) but my container is virtual. It exists “in the cloud,” so to speak. The people who share a large portion of my understanding exist all over the world, but few, if any, are right here in “River City.” And as I said, even if we did get together, it would violate certain family requirements for me to participate in any significant or regular way.

Blogging is about as close as it gets and even that’s dicey sometimes.

One of the requirements contained within the church I attend is Christmas. It’s the day the vast majority of Christians choose to honor the birth of Jesus, and a great deal of custom, tradition, and fanfare surround not only that day, but the entire month in which it occurs.

But it’s not “me.” I don’t resonate with Christmas as a Christian. Watching everyone at church get really excited about Christmas (my Pastor was listening to Christmas music in his office even before Thanksgiving) just accentuates my sense of alienation, my “not-belongingness.”

Helping the HomelessI don’t disdain those who choose to celebrate Christmas. In fact, some Christians use this time of year to exceptionally demonstrate their desire to serve God by behaving more “Christ-like” in giving to charity and showing kindness to others. If Christmas is their inspiration for doing good, who am I to argue?

Unlike Miller, I’m not “both,” I’m just “me,” whatever “me” is. Actually, I’m getting a better and clearer picture of what “me” is all the time. The mist is dissipating and the sun is beginning to shine on the path I have selected from all of the paths I’ve considered.

It’s just a path that doesn’t hold very many fellow travelers. And almost none of them celebrate Christmas. I’ll see what church is like after the lights and decorations have come down next month.

Addendum: I just wanted to add that some traditional Christians also don’t celebrate Christmas for a variety of reasons, I for one am not avoiding it out of some sense of paganoia (a term coined by First Fruits of Zion teacher and author Toby Janicki) or the irrational fear that celebrating Christmas automatically makes you an idol worshiper. It’s a matter of personal conviction and taking on board a more Judaic view of the Messiah. It’s as simple as that.

15 thoughts on “Christmas at Arm’s Length”

  1. I’d be interested to see more of why you stopped celebrating Christmas?
    I have in the past few years recognized it as many things we do in the church as something we do that is most likely of dubious origin, (like elevated oration from a pulpit) but I still celebrate it. Some of the most beautiful hymns are Christmas centered and as you have pointed out many people do a lot to help others this time of year. Also I still love a good sermon.

    What I’m specifically not understanding is that it seems like something messianic jews do not do as a whole and that the knowledge of that for the reader is assumed and I’m now rather curious about it.

  2. “You never learn more about what you believe and why than when you are required to defend it.”

    Well said. Even though I may not be on exactly the same path you are on, I do identify with the struggle to clarify ones own views, to seek the most correct understanding, and to understand what the ‘faith boundaries’ really are.

    To the latter point, I’m starting to think that those who love God enough to humbly make it a practice to seek the truth about Him through the scriptures are bound to find the truth, and they will be in the right “boundary”.

    “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” – John 10:27

    BTW, regarding Christmas, we do celebrate it as a Christian tradition, although I don’t regard it as any sort of important observance, other than the fact that the Messiah did come as promised to fulfill his purpose as our Priest and Savior.

    The traditional activities are mostly a special time for the kids, and I have fond childhood memories of Christmas caroling, giving and receiving presents, decorating the house, and so on.

  3. Hi Rich,

    We originally stopped celebrating Christmas as a family fifteen or so years ago (I said ten years in the body of the blog post, but then I got to thinking and realized it’s been longer) when we transitioned from a church to a Hebrew Roots congregation. I’ll admit, we were inexperienced believers at the time, and the Hebrew Roots people (mostly non-Jews with just a few halachic Jews such as my wife attending…no one raised in an observant and culturally Jewish family) said that they only observed the festivals outlined in the Bible (which wasn’t quite true since they also celebrated Chanukah).

    Time passed. My wife became more attached to the local Jewish community, first to CABI and then to the Chabad. As a result, she stopped going to anything “Christian” including Hebrew Roots and her belief system shifted to conform to more traditional Judaism.

    As for me, I stopped worrying about Christmas as far as its “pagan origins” a long time ago, but I also got out of the habit or custom of celebrating it. The kids were young when we made the decision and none of them (now all adults) are interested in having Christmas re-surface in their lives.

    What I’ve experienced since my return to church a little more than a year ago, is that the observance of Christmas seems to be tied to a significant set of emotional attachments to the tradition (you don’t find Christmas in the Bible). I don’t have that attachment. Besides that, Jesus in all likelihood, wasn’t born anywhere near December 25th, and there’s nothing in the Bible that says we should celebrate his birthday. The Bible is also rather vague as to when he was born, although it does contain details about the events surrounding his birth.

    We haven’t even had the modern incarnation of Christmas for very long…maybe a few centuries (trees, Christmas goose, the play “A Christmas Carole,” that sort of thing), so the celebration we see today doesn’t go back a whole ways.

    On top of all that, if you’ve read this blog very much, you know my perspectives are very unconventional, so it’s pretty unlikely that I’m going to behave like a “typical Christian”.

    Bottom line is that as a Christian husband married to a Jewish wife (who couldn’t care less about Christmas), I don’t have any sort of connection with Christmas and I don’t feel like I’m hurting God’s feelings by not putting up a tree and singing Christmas caroles around the fire. I have absolutely no problem with people who do celebrate Christmas and who find meaning in the celebration, especially if some sort of good comes out of their observance, but that’s them, not me.

  4. I would like to understand more of what this community that the author talks about is like? Is it a philosophy shared across social media or something that takes place in a physical location. Is it made up of people who are involved in their own faith communities, but also participate in this interfaith one, likely due to intermarriage?

    I am sure your pastor is familiar with Spurgeon and his take on these holidays.

    I know your wife isn’t happy about the book budget, but if you and pastor could read, “The Beast that Crouches at the Door,” together, it might help you move away from trying to convince each other, to understanding that you cannot convince each other of anything.

  5. Jerry, I think we have a certain amount of latitude in our observance such that people can choose or not choose to celebrate Christmas but I don’t think it harms our relationship with God either way.

    That said, religious institutions, at least some of them, can be pretty rigid about what is and isn’t acceptable. Don’t get me wrong. I do believe in a “right” and “wrong” and congregations have to define themselves along those lines, But I don’t think Christmas is a deal-breaker necessarily (I say that, but I know a family that was kicked out of their church years ago because they stopped celebrating Christmas).

    Actually, my grandson had a blast at our family Passover seder last year and if you have enough kids, Purim celebrations are extremely kid-friendly.

  6. I would like to understand more of what this community that the author talks about is like?

    Could you remind me of what community and author we’re talking about, Chaya? I’m drawing a blank.

    I’ll have to put that on my list (see the “wish list” on my Books page for this ever growing list) so I don’t lose track of it. I have a stack of four or five books sitting on my desk right now waiting for me to read them. It’s not just money, it’s time.

    Thanks for the suggestion, though.

  7. James, I think she is talking about the interfaith community mentioned in your quote.

    Thanks for the response I don’t actually know much of anyone with “typical Christian views”, I knew a few reasons like I outlined why people stop celebrating it, but yours seemed to stem from different reasons entirely so I asked. Thanks for the info.

    Can’t believe you actually know of someone that got kicked out of their fellowship for not celebrating Christmas anymore, what a ridiculous excuse to divide the body.

  8. @Chaya: All I know about that interfaith community is what I read here.

    @Rich: Sadly, it’s true about that family. They were actually invited back sometime later and returned, but the fellow said it just didn’t feel like their church home anymore and stopped going. I don’t think they’re attending a church right now, but he does participate in regular Bible studies at a coffee shop (the last I heard).

    It think that more Christians would give up Christmas if there weren’t outside influences. I spoke with one of the associate Pastors at the church I attend and he’s not a big fan of Christmas, either.

  9. “Unlike Miller, I’m not “both,” I’m just “me,” whatever “me” is.”

    This is my favorite sentence in the blog post, James. If being “me” were more acceptable within the Christian community, and less threatening, we’d have a little more heaven on earth, I think. As long as we have good, biblical reasons for our “unorthodoxy” as believers who study, learn, and increasingly apply more Jewish (biblical) norms to our walk, it seems that, in a healthy, strong setting of fellowship, we should be less of an irritation, more of an “interesting opportunity to learn.” But alas, such is rarely the case.

    In our family, we light the Hanukkah candles as a family and put up the Christmas tree as a family, but also recognize Messiah’s birth as part of Succoth in terms of its timing. As one who was raised in an observant Irish-Italian Roman Catholic home, having attended twelve years of Catholic schooling, Christmas is part of my essential make-up, it seems, and functions in what I consider to be a very healthy way, a very worshipful way, for me and my family. It has much to do with tradition and warm family memories, both things I highly value and need in my life. God is in the beauty and the majesty of it all.

    I find Toby [Janicki’s] teaching on the subject to be a good, reasonable view. I just say no to “paganoia,” to use the term Toby coins, and celebrate Messiah’s birth. It is not a purely theological matter to me, but a matter of the heart.

    Sometimes I wonder if maybe, must maybe, concerning issues such as this, that God Himself gets tired of so much theology. 🙂

    1. I think, Dan, that your post of the 19th at 5:38pm well illustrates an observation I thought to offer, which is that even when Christians accept the biblical Jewish holidays as HaShem’s institutions, and they accept a more accurate timing for Rav Yeshua’s birth at Sukkot rather than in December, they often still wish to retain the lovely traditions and the warm feelings into which they were acculturated as children.

      I imagine this sense of culture was also in play among the earliest non-Jewish disciples in the first century, where it was also reinforced by pagan Roman political requirements. Thus it was not easy then to escape the trappings of idolatry, even as today the Christmas season still reflects its modified or re-interpreted pagan origins and centuries of accreted traditions like Santa Claus, decorated evergreen trees, Yule logs, holly wreaths, mistletoe sprigs, poinsettia plants, chestnuts roasting on open fires, familiar songs/carols, colorful lights, gifts in stockings and under trees, and an entire commercial structure that depends on them. A politician who eschewed such things publicly would also likely not be rewarded for such a counter-cultural stance.

      One may wonder how large a demographic would be required to shift a society away from centuries of a mistaken embedded cultural model and toward general acceptance of more biblical alternatives. Already some subcultural groupings have adopted such alternatives, and many of these also eschew the faulty prior tradition without trying to retain or justify any part of it. But they represent only small portions of their surrounding societies and do not yet seriously threaten existing norms, though they have had in some regions sufficient impact to stimulate reactionary backlash. One need not engage in “paganoia” nor petty bickering to stand firmly in favor of a justifiable alternative to a mistaken prevailing culture, while refusing to compromise with or participate in the trappings of that culture. Jews have been doing it more and less consistently for millennia, though certainly we’ve suffered for it and still need to resist the alluring blandishments of surrounding cultures.

  10. Dan, I think that God will embarrass us when He explains that our theologies and our petty bickering were so far off the mark. My Pastor says that God doesn’t grade on a curve, but if He didn’t no one would make it. I know there’s a line between being one of His and otherwise, but within the community of faith, we are still so diverse. I think He looks at us the way we, as fathers, have looked at our own children when they were very little. Children can take seriously things that are very inconsequential and all we can do is chuckle and support them. We are that way in God’s eyes, and I don’t doubt that He chuckles and shakes His head (so to speak) at our silliness as well.

  11. I agree with what you’re saying, PL. As for refusing to participate in such trappings of the culture, which was once my culture, I am exceedingly slow when it comes to Christmas. Easter, on the other hand, has been filed away for quite some time, as the rejection of Passover was included in the establishment of it, and this I find too perfidious a thing to even approach. Easter is dead to me, so to speak, as I take hard issue with the Church’s cancellation of Passover in order to establish and promote it. For this, it seems more “unclean” than Christmas, at least to a goy like me who probably has only a juvenile sense of “unclean” at best.

    As for Christmas, which is established through pagan fusion without “canceling” or “rejecting” any part of God’s appointed times, it would take a lifetime it seems, at least for me, to “wipe the memory” clean of dear family memories, especially when dear ones who are no longer with us are so vividly included in those memories. Such moments of life are powerful connectors even in death. If I were to live one hundred and fifty years while implementing Torah-observance, perhaps. At least, to be honest, while walking the track I’m currently on. I might need two hundred, though. The Italian side of my family is especially close, and our collective memories of Christmas are “echad,” so to speak, like one grand memory spanning the seasons of the past four decades.

    All of the icons of Christmas have, however, become simple, if powerful, metaphors of Messiah’s coming for me over the years; the St. Nicholas-Father Christmas-Santa Claus aspect nothing more than a metaphor of the Holy Spirit, which gives gifts in keeping with the love of the Father through Messiah. I experience the mo’edim as the only truly authentic way, the Christian expressions as fading secondary heirlooms, you might say, of a loving, rich past that included my mother and my father, of blessed memory, who are now both deceased.

    Your comment is taken in a good way, as a reminder that with God all things are possible, and that 100% devotion to His ways, in the purest sense, are always the best way to go. It is good that we Gentiles share a Father who is also our King that is infinitely patient… as well as good and wise brothers like yourself, who understand the dense spiritual space we Gentiles move through as plod our way forward toward the authenticate ways of God. The Messianic Jew is my elder brother in all of this, whom I depend upon and rely upon for counsel and guidance. It will always be so, until Moschiach returns. I am indebted in the best way possible, a humble non-Jew grateful for those who understand my situation with patience.

    Thanks, PL. You have a good way of articulating complex situations and putting them in accessible perspective…

  12. Real Christians should keep their hands off Christmas, which is a pagan celebration on the birthday of the goddess of light. Jesus was born on the 17th of October 4BCE, and Christmas trees, X-mass decorations, Reindeer, elfs like Santa Claus have nothing to do with the birth of Jeshua (Jesus Christ) the Nazarene Jew we do take as the Messiah.

  13. Greetings, Christadelphians.

    If you read my blog post and comments above, you know my opinion on Christmas and anyone who chooses to celebrate it.

    I’m just curious how you could be so certain of the exact date on which Jesus was born? It’s not stated explicitly in the Bible and even the community of New Testament scholars admit that the date of his birth cannot be precisely determined.

    Just to save some time, you can read a couple of articles I wrote on the attempt to identify the season let alone the exact date of the Master’s birth in Was He Born in a Sukkah and A Question of the Division of Abijah.


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