Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Hanukkah vs. Christmas

Yesterday I discussed how I think Hanukkah has been stolen by American society as a beacon of political correctness. By recognizing December as a multi-denominational holiday season, and replacing "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays," we have taken a very minor holiday and elevated it to major holiday status for the sake of inclusion and political correctness.  But why did the Jews go along with that?

And for that, I want to delve into a view of Christmas, from the outside:
1. That annoying thing we don't have to worry about
Christmas is a small inconvenience (the traffic at- and adjacent to- the malls; a bunch of stuff closed on Christmas day forcing us to stereotypically eat at Asian restaurants which are perpetually open). Having no emotional attachment to Christmas, I see the trees as messy, the shopping as overwhelming, and the decorations as a waste of closet space for 10 months out of the year. If this offends you, it's not because it's not true, but because your rosy memories of Christmas outweigh your practicality on this matter. Plenty of things are worth the hassle if you have an emotional attachment to them (see also: babies). But I'm, quite frankly, glad I get to sit this one out. (I said in my last post that I liked Christmastime, and I do... although I could do with less traffic. But I like it as a bystander- albeit one who listens to Christmas music in the car sometimes- or as one helping others celebrate their holiday, never as a participant.)
2. Twinkle lights as a gateway drug
Jews know that Christmas is a major Christian holiday celebrating Jesus's birth. But amazingly, people will try to tell us that a Christmas tree is just a tree (true), that twinkle lights are not owned by any particular religious denomination (true), or any number of other things that essentially amount to "it's not a religious holiday if you don't want it to be." (false) Now I know this is not, at it's heart, sinister... but sometimes it feels that way. Because these are all symbols of a religious holiday for not-our-religion. Of course, the majority of people suggesting we celebrate Christmas in a secular way are non-practicing Christians for whom Christmas is a largely secular holiday. They love the trees and the cookies and the days off for non-religious reasons and as a way to connect to their childhood and families. And because these non-religious people don't celebrate Christmas as a Christian holiday, they think we can too. But Jews can't do that. We can't take on the cultural traditions of our neighbors without also ceding our own cultural and religious identity. We can't celebrate "just" the secular parts of your religious holiday, even if you can. [In this way, I am firmly on the "Keep the Christ in Christmas" team. I'm not any more interested in a mainstream, secular Christmas than you are. It's a religious holiday and it should stay that way.]
3. The Thing separating Us from Everyone Else
The Jew as the "other" is more apparent during the month of December than any other time of year. Christmas is a big, pervasive holiday in the US. It's all over the stores and the TV and the Santa photos at the mall. It takes over radio stations, which started playing nothing but Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving and won't stop until the day after New Years. It's gotten so big, Black Friday became Black Thursday this year (you might know it better as Thanksgiving, but not for long. As Jon Stewart said, "Christmas has gotten so big, it's eating other holidays."). Christmas is EVERYWHERE in the U.S. Except in Jewish homes. Despite the secular clothes Christmas is wearing these days, we know it's a religious holiday, and one that isn't for us. (Given that the divinity of Jesus is pretty much THE difference between Christians and Jews, it would be a little weird if we suddenly decided to start celebrating "secular" Birth-of-Jesus-day... don't you think?)

So you have everyone and then you have the Jews, who are surrounded by Christmas, but completely unwilling to bring it into their homes. Well, that's adult Jews. For small children, it's difficult to see people having fun you're not invited to. (This is true whether it's your parents having a cocktail party after they put you to bed, or the entire country having a month-long red and green celebration in your face.) Unable to grasp the deeper importance of not assimilating into American and Christian society, all kids can see is that everyone else is getting more presents and having more fun than they are. The easy solution, of course, is to wave over there to this even bigger, better holiday where you get eight whole nights of presents compared to their measly one night. When the opportunity arose to have a totally Jewish holiday that could compete with Christmas, mainstream American Jews ran with it. They did it for the sake of their children, for the sake of cultural and religious continuity for the next generation. American Jews knew they couldn't have Christmas, that they had to stand apart, but this way they could stand just as tall and just as shiny.

Interfaith Family, a Jewish resource for intermarried couples, discusses a December Dilemma, caused by the competition between Christmas and Hanukkah (a large part of this is also the fact that, as mentioned, even non-religious Christians and those Christians committed to raising Jewish children are very attached to the "secular" symbols of Christmas). If you are a mainstream Jewish family in America, you can do the hand-waving at Hanukkah, this bigger better holiday. But if you are an interfaith family, your kids will see Christmas up close and personal- if not at their own house then at Grandma's. And on closer inspection, Christmas is always going to "win" against even the most outrageous of Hanukkah celebrations.

If it were a competition, Hanukkah (and maybe Judaism altogether) wouldn't stand a chance.  But religion is not about competing with each other for who has the bigger holidays. It's not even about competing over who has the more meaningful traditions. (This is, in itself, a decidedly Jewish approach. Jews, who do not believe in proselytizing, who in fact discourage conversion, do not need to prove their rightness or superiority to those on the outside. Of course, if the majority of mainstream American Jews remembered this, then "American" Hanukkah as a competitor for Christmas would never have been allowed to exist in the first place.)
Yesterday I told my fiance that I was abolishing Hanukkah presents for our kids, part of my plot to take Hanukkah back. He, who is committed to raising Jewish kids with me, worried that they would think Christmas was cooler, undermining their Jewishness. You know what? Christmas is cooler than Hanukkah*. There, I said it. Battle over. I'm not going to fight this war. I'm going to find another way to get my kids excited about Judaism. Despite the distinct lack of twinkle lights and gingerbread houses, Judaism has some pretty neat things going for it.

*Passover is the best holiday anyways. Forget the December Dilemma, the Springtime Struggle is on.

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