I’ll share a little secret with you. Sometimes, I really don’t like the holidays, but probably not for the reasons you think.
There’s a temptation to read into the reasons a person like me might “disengage” from Christmas, even though my wife and (Jewish) family members consider me a Christian. You might think I’m freaking out over the “pagan origins” of Christmas. Maybe you believe I abhor the secular, consumerism associated with Christmas. Along those lines, you could even consider that I want to put the “Christ” back in “Christmas”.
Actually, the crass materialism connected to one of the biggest American holidays of the year is probably my biggest objection of those listed above. The intense greed and “feeding frenzy” chaotic power surge of “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” are more objectionable to me than people putting up a real or artificial pine tree and decorating it with lights and ornaments.
And of course, my family is Jewish, making Christmas a “non-starter” in our home. Really, I don’t miss it. Well, not exactly.
I’ve written about Christmas before (do a search on “Christmas” on this blog and you’ll see the list…it’s long), and although I’m not fond of this time of year, I really don’t care if secular people or even Christians celebrate it.
Every person has their cherished traditions, as does every family. Christmas is a cherished tradition for many, many American families. Some see it as a way to celebrate the birth of the Savior and take the opportunity to loudly and publicly praise his advent into our world. Some of those same people also seize the moment and choose to give back extra to the community through various forms of charity.
Others, who are not religious, still view Christmas as a time to gather family and friends in whom they find physical and emotional warmth at this time of year, which, here in Idaho, can be pretty cold and dark. Even the areligious bask in the joy of their children on Christmas morning as they open their presents, enjoy roast turkey or goose for the celebratory meal, and marvel in the beauty of neighborhoods decked in the glow of seasonal lights. And sometimes the areligious outshine the Christians in our communities in giving to charity and helping give to those who are doing without.
Personally, I’ve enjoyed seasonal lights recently, they just weren’t Christmas lights.
Every night for the first seven nights of Chanukah, my wife and daughter would gather around our two Chanukiah, say the blessings, and light the Chanukah lights one by one.
I usually only become aware of it when I hear the blessings being said and, when I peak out into our living room toward the kitchen and dining areas, I see my wife and daughter illuminated by the glow.
It still stings a little, but I try to understand that, from their point of view, this is a celebration of Jewish lights, Jewish victories, and Jewish freedom, and the miracles of God toward Israel. As a Christian, my tradition isn’t supposed to include Jewish tradition, so they don’t think to invite me.
But last night was different.
Actually, all of yesterday was different.
My wife and daughter being foodies, can take all day to prepare for a single dinner. My daughter had to work yesterday, so my wife had me fire up the Traeger and pour in the wood pellets so it was prepared, first for beef brisket, and then for lamb. My job as a non-cook, is to clean, usually the ever mounting mess in the kitchen, but also to vacuum the living room and such. I also get sent to the store for various last minute items.
I had an irrational thought about whether or not the stores would be open, only to remember that, for the rest of the world, Chanukah is no big deal. No store closures or limited hours in Idaho for a Jewish celebration.
Finally 5 o’clock arrived and so did the family. Children and grandchildren gathered together. It wasn’t idyllic. These are human beings and we’re a human family, not a Hallmark greeting card. Still, I felt a warmth that didn’t come from the glow of a well used stove top and oven.
I was remembering other family holiday gatherings of the past. I was remembering Christmas, of a sort. Not the tree or the presents or all of that, but the feeling of family coming together, good company, good food, and playing games (my grandson cleaned up on gelt when we played dreidel).
My daughter, who actually knows Hebrew and doesn’t require transliterations of the blessings, helped my six-year old grandson recite the blessing to ignite the Chanukah lights for the final night. His pronunciation was terrible and I doubt he understood the significance, especially since his parents don’t (as far as I know) incorporate any Jewish observance or tradition in their home. But if we can expose him and his now nearly six-month old sister, to activities such as Chanukah, Passover, and Sukkot, year after year, then maybe, just maybe, when they’re older, they’ll be curious enough about their father’s Jewish heritage to look into it on their own.
That’s what tradition is and what it does. It’s a way to teach your children the values and history of the family, to pass on to the next generation what practices we think are important and why they mean so much to us.
The Jews are experts at this and have been passing on traditions from parent to child for thousands of years, and this, as much as anything, has preserved the Jewish people and the functional practice of Judaism from generation to generation, when over 99% of the rest of the world has actively been trying to destroy them, either through outright extermination or assimilation, which amounts to the same thing.
Although I no longer connect with Christmas, I can hardly distain those who hold it most dear. They’re doing what we’re doing…passing along family and cultural traditions and values. We may or may not approve of the specifics of those values, but we can hardly call the process into question because what they do is what we do.
I know some secular people who have objected to, for example, various practices in Orthodox Judaism involving children, such as what they see as excessively modest dress or little boys wearing their hair in Payot (Hebrew: פֵּאָה; plural: פֵּאוֹת), even going so far as to call it child abuse.
But it’s a tradition of their culture and a rather benign one at that. Are we to criticize the traditions of other families and other cultures just because they are not like our own?
So if one family celebrates Chanukah and another Christmas, why the panic attack?
Heck, I remember when my children were quite young. We still lived in Southern California. We still celebrated Christmas. My wife had friends, an older Jewish couple (they were friends of her parents actually) who visited us on Christmas Day. One year, they took us to a Judaica store, one of the few businesses open on December 25th, and it was quite interesting.
They didn’t seem to object that we were celebrating Christmas (even though they knew my wife was Jewish, though she wasn’t religious at the time). It was an opportunity for us to get together and spend some time with each other. Friendship and family works like that.
So last night, I enjoyed the lamb and the latkes. We ate homemade ice cream and played dreidel. My grandson helped light the Chanukah lights and I got to stand right there with my family and watch our home become illuminated.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was good. I hope next year it will be even better.