Tomorrow is Christmas and the holiday season brings out conflicting emotions in me.
Being raised Christian – specifically Southern Baptist – there are some fond memories attached to the holiday that come around once the temperature drops and bright lights adorn neighborhoods. I fondly remember putting up the Christmas tree a couple of weeks before Christmas day and how, especially when I was very young, it felt like an adventure. Taking it out of storage, unpacking the ornaments, and putting it together while something like A Charlie Brown Christmas played in the background. All the while, gift wrapping and the smell of biscuits on Christmas morning added in that extra bit of holiday flair that made for great memories.
There are even some fond memories of the Christmas Eve service. Although I no longer practice the Christian faith, and haven’t for over half of my life, I adored the hundreds of candles that were lit in the dark while the congregation sang hymns and told the Christmas story of Jesus. Even now, as someone who has absolutely no faith in the divinity or Godhood of Jesus, there is a serenity and beauty in the lights lighting up the darkness and the gathering of people in humbled worship.
But, for all of the nostalgia that does come with the season, there is also my current reality. Overall, I have grown to dislike the Christmas and overall holiday season. Both it’s commercialization and beyond.
Being a convert to Judaism (specifically Conservative Judaism), Christmas is something that just no longer plays a significant part in my life. All that I have mentioned earlier – about the beauty of people being together in worship and the lights – can be found in Judaism, and not just with Hanukkah. Granted, as a Jew, and a Liberal one at that, I could willingly participate in the secular celebrations of Christmas outside of the context of visiting family, but choose not to. Even though about a third of American Jews do participate in some celebration of the Christmas holiday; like having a Christmas tree.
I do “celebrate”, as it were, because I visit my family during the season and they are all Christian. I help with the shopping, decorate the tree (if there actually is a tree), and spend the morning with them as they open their presents.
Yet, it’s just not the same as it once was. As the years go by, Christmas – and indeed the whole holiday season – seems to be losing its charm more and more each year. Not as many people put up Christmas lights, shopping is a hassle, and most people just seem to want it to be done and over with. This isn’t just with Christmas. Hanukkah is a holiday that, while I celebrate, isn’t my favorite. And I greatly dislike how it is often seen as the “Jewish Christmas”; by both non-Jews and some Jews alike. There just isn’t any magical left with the hyper-commercialization, and a just a general feeling of less and less festive cheer with each passing year.
With this combined, both participating in Christmas due to my family and the season feeling less joyous each year can oftentimes feel isolating. Especially combined with my conversion to Judaism. People in my life sometimes don’t understand why I don’t want to decorate a tree on my own time or go to a Christmas eve service – despite not believing in Jesus.
It’s one thing to be an American – Christian or otherwise – who usually celebrates Christmas to not be in the holiday mood. But eventually, I plan on not having anything to do with the holiday in any meaningful capacity. This means, in a way, that I am an oddity. Someone who doesn’t have any real desire to participate in a majority culture, while maintaining a minority culture. It’s already something that is often difficult to accomplish, let alone being a part of a minority which makes up only 2% of the American population.
I’m not one to decry “assimilation” by participating in wider culture. Being a Liberal Jew, I inherently am a part of the wider culture and am thus “assimilated” according to the more right-religious wings of Judaism.
But there is still something distinctive about taking on this new culture and tradition that, even among the most Liberal and non-observant, does make us stand out from the greater culture. Even though I would never reject my non-Jewish friends or family, there are still practices I have which make me different from them. Not eating pork or shellfish being an example, which can make things difficult when you’re from the southern United States and pork is in many, many dishes.
Not partaking in Christmas is another. As the years go by, I see myself “doing” Christmas less and less until it is no longer a blip on my radar.
To my family, and by extension the wider culture, it’s giving up something that has to be done. Because everyone else does it. To not do so is a sad thing, because I’m missing out on the “joy” of the holiday, as well as othering myself. To a certain extent, it’s also selfish, since I eventually won’t partake in the holiday with my loved ones, all for the sake of staying true to something that not many people get or understand.
This feeling of isolation can also come from some of my fellow Jews – who see any participation in anything non-Jewish as giving up one’s faith and traditions. Or as aforementioned, assimilation.
Honestly, in some ways, you just can’t win. This holiday season will come and go, and so with the next one, and the one after next. Regardless if I partake in any festivities or not.
Maybe Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis from Christmas With the Kranks had a good idea after all.