Tuesday, 27 December 2016

On the Meaning of Christmas

My relationship with Christmas has been complicated. It's no wonder; I was born Jewish, and grew up with the knowledge that the majority of the society I lived in believed in things that weren’t real, like Jesus and Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and would, for about a month every year, attempt to force me to believe in those things as well. And I hated it. I have a vivid memory of resisting making a Christmas stocking in kindergarten arts and crafts, insisting that my wonderfully patient teacher find me a Hanukkah-themed craft instead. My mobile made of pipe-cleaner Stars of David wasn’t nearly as pretty as everyone else’s stockings, but I had taken a stand and made a point, and I was satisfied. In later years I would bring dreidels and chocolate gelt to class and teach my classmates how to celebrate Hanukkah.

My desire to assert my religious identity fell off somewhere in middle school, and in eighth grade it vanished altogether: I had transferred to a new school, in the district my mother teaches high school social studies in, in a town where people were very open about the fact that they thought their next-door neighbors who went to a different church were going to hell, let alone teenage me, who had no answer when asked what church I attended. If I wanted to fit in, I had to go to marching band every Friday night and on Yom Kippur. It didn’t work, but I still did it.

As an aside: one of the local bible study groups decided Mom was too good of a person to have to go to hell. Sometimes I can accept it as the compliment it was intended as.

I occasionally tried to connect with my Jewish peers through high school youth group events, but I was just as alone among them as I was in school. My attachment to being Jewish and doing Jewish things waned again in college: I stopped keeping kosher while living in a dorm, I stopped going to Hillel because the people there were all the same people from youth group. I started dating non-Jews.

But I still hated Christmas. I hated the music, the endless Nativity scenes and decorated trees, the debates over whether “Happy Holidays” was an attack on Christmas (spoiler alert: it isn’t), the emphasis on Jesus and the abandonment of Jesus in favor of a Coca-Cola spokesman. I did my best to avoid it, though it only seemed to get more prominent when I moved to Vancouver for grad school and found that the nearest synagogue was an hour away by bus, and the nearest Hillel even farther.


A few things have happened in the last two years that have changed how I relate both to my Jewish heritage and upbringing and to Christmas. I’ll start with the second: an egomaniac who panders to neo-Nazis became the president-elect of the United States. Suddenly, it’s become important that I be aware of my Jewishness, and that I practice it, not only to keep close the people I care about, but also in defiance of Minority President-Elect Donald Trump and those who do physical and verbal violence in his name.

The first thing is the one I really want to talk about. This is, to lean briefly on a cliché, how I discovered the true meaning of Christmas. Just over two years ago, I started dating a guy I met in my grad school dorm. Let’s call him The Geek. I somehow managed to impress his mother enough that, for our second Christmas together, Geek’s mom invited me to visit. And it was wonderful. I have never felt so happy at a family gathering. This probably has something to do with getting a large number of presents at once for the first time since a birthday in elementary school. It definitely has something to do with finally reaching my destination after an unpleasant night in an airport. It may also have something to do with the found-family effect—my own mother likes to invite all her relatives to things in an effort to keep the peace, which generally results in me spending hours making small talk with people around whom I am uncomfortable.

But here’s where that cliché comes back. What made that Christmas special, and what I think the point of a good Christmas is, is that everybody made an effort to show that they cared about everyone else. What was gotten was neither more nor less than what was given, and everyone seemed really happy to be there—and happy that I, a relative stranger, was there. Even the cat let me feed him.

This year I didn’t get to go anywhere over what we in the Happy Holidays camp call winter break. I’d thought I would get a seasonal job, and by the time it became clear I wouldn’t have one, plane tickets were too expensive for me to visit either my parents or The Geek’s. So he went off to spend three weeks at home, and I’ve been knocking around our apartment, applying for jobs I’ll never hear back about, getting a bit of cleaning done, and occasionally meeting up with friends to drive away the lonely. This year, I’m homesick for two places and two holidays: the first night of Hanukkah at my parents’ house, to which I did not Skype in because I was too sad, and Christmas Day at The Geek’s parents’, to which I did Skype in because looking at the presents Geek’s mother sent me gave me a way to avoid eye contact when I inevitably felt like crying. Not only do I understand this particular form of Christmas now, I like it enough to miss it.

The third thing is a story I found on the Internet which I’m including because neither you nor I came here to be sad. (At least, I assume so; I've never gotten any comments one way or the other.) An anonymous parent explains that, instead of crushing their son’s dreams by telling him Santa doesn’t exist, they instead taught him how to be a Santa himself.

Oddly enough, this story represents a convergence between Christmas and Judaism: what this parent is teaching their child is, in Jewish law, called tzedakah, the divine commandment of charitable giving. According to this parent, giving anonymously without thought of reward is the core of what it means to be Santa. According to the ancient rabbis who distilled Jewish law from Scriptural commentary, that same anonymous giving is the highest form of tzedakah. (Hat tip to the late George Michael, who was apparently a serious mensch in this regard.) Funny, isn’t it, that the meaning of Christmas is so Jewish.

I hope your Christmases have been merry, your Hanukkahs happy, and all your other holidays joyous and peaceful. Here’s to a better year.

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