Wednesday, December 25, 2013
A Jew on Xmas
It's Christmas, but to me, a Jew, it's just another Wednesday. To Jews, Christmas means Chinese food and a midnight/matinee showing of a movie not having to do with Christmas and/or featuring a Jewish actor/director (Woody Allen, anyone?) I've always been fascinated with the whole concept of Christmas. The whole hustle and bustle to get presents, clean the house, bake cookies, make a meal, get everything done by the December 25 deadline. To me, it always seemed impossible for people to get it all done just in time for Christmas. I always said to myself, thank goodness I'm a Jew and don't have to worry about it. Having been on a very tight budget these past few years, I'm very thankful that I don't need to worry about any of the things that others, who celebrate Christmas, must worry about each year. How do people ration out enough cash to budget everything? I really don't know how people do it.
But then I think about the pang I feel at not celebrating Christmas. I'm glad and proud to be Jewish, don't get me wrong. But there's always this left out feeling, like you're looking in from the outside. As a little kid, I felt this way. Going to school Christmas parties and chorus recitals, I just didn't feel like I fit in. As the token Jew, I always either brought cookies shaped like stars of David or insisted that we sing a Hanukkah song. But those efforts made me stick out more. It was either assimilate like them and go through the motions of Christmas or do nothing at all. I choose the latter.
I know what you're thinking; I could do what many Jews do and celebrate the 'holiday spirit' of the day. Some Jews put up Christmas trees, aptly disguised as Hanukkah bushes. Some Jews even exchange gifts or have family over on the big day. For me and my family, we sit it out. The whole holiday season is free of hustle and bustle. For us, there is no Christmas ham or Christmas tree.
I get it though. There's this whole notion and expectation that Christmas brings a day of comfort and peace to the hearts of everyone who celebrates. Even for me, as a non-participant, I feel that on this day, all my cares and worries are put to rest. There's a general sense of calmness and serenity surrounding Christmas, no matter where the day falls. I think it's that Hallmark/Norman Rockwell picturesque family around the tree or eating goose and fig pudding that I felt I was missing out on. And I would argue that it's this feeling of missing out that makes many Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists take part in Christmas despite not believing in baby Jesus and the whole idea of a nice Jewish boy being the son of G-d, chosen messiah figure.
As a culture, we have romanticized Christmas to the point of having expectations and hopes that my or may not come true. As an outside observer, it seems to me that Christmas is very existential. For almost two months, from after Halloween until the very eve of Christmas, we are up to our ears in lights, tinsel, pine trees, flash sales, and 24-hour Christmas song stations. There is constant planning and prepping from the minute we enter the month of November. And then Thanksgiving, probably what should be deemed secular Christmas, or prep for the marathon that Christmas has become, everyone becomes obsessed with finding the best discounts and bargains so that Christmas can be perfect. Right after Thanksgiving, the race is on to make the best Christmas ever and recreate a Martha Stewart living fold-out.
Now, I don't mean to take a dump all over the holiday. I know that for many of my friends the holiday has significant meaning and importance. And the majority of people who I know choose not to be overly commercial and materialistic. I know many folks who make their gifts and ornaments. Some people have been collecting vintage decorations for years or recycle Christmas traditions handed down from childhood. Some families sing carols around the piano sipping spiked Eggnog while others take turns reading Dickens's 'A Christmas Carol' around the fireplace in flannel pajamas (wait, do they?) Wait, I think I have my notions of the holiday mixed up with movies and television shows. See, that's the problem. Where do we separate the actual holiday from the myth and hype surrounding it? There is so much pomp and circumstance to Christmas. It's like, everyone holds their breath until the 25th, and then, on the 26th, what's left? A de-boned bird carcass, lots of dishes to clean, and perhaps a few gift returns. Then, hit all of the post-holiday sales at the mall. I ask, as an outside observer, why all the hype and zapping of energy for one day? It's one day out of the calendar year.
And I get the thing about being with family; peace and good will, all that jazz. But shouldn't people be incorporating all of those warm fuzzy Christmas-time things during the rest of the year? Everyone rushes around like chickens without heads to make their Christmas special, but then what's the point? Isn't the holiday more or less built up on false definitions of what makes the holiday so great? Again, I'm not trying to poop all over the holiday. I get its importance for those people who celebrate it. However, I feel that as a result of sappy movies and TV shows, that we have a very high expectation for what the day should look like. Think of all of those postcard-like images we get from even the Christmas songs. One 'dreams of a white Christmas' where one 'decks the halls with boughs of holly' and 'come a-wassailing among the leaves so green' and has visions of sugarplums 'dancing in their heads' and has 'bells on bobtails ring' and sees 'glories stream from heaven afar' where everything is perfectly in place including 'a partridge in a pear tree'. I admit that even I love listening to those Christmas carols, as they evoke a feeling of euphoric peace and nostalgia. I especially like the 50's and 60's crooner tunes. By the way, many of those Christmas carols are written by Jews. It's not only the music, though.
Film has romanticized Christmas too. There are movies like: 'It's a Wonderful Life'(1946), 'Meet Me in St. Louis' (1944), 'Bundle of Joy' (1956), 'Holiday Affair' (1949), 'Christmas in Connecticut'(1945), 'The Man Who Came to Dinner' (1942), 'White Christmas' (1954), 'Miracle on 34th Street' (1947), and 'A Christmas Carol' (1938/1951). From these films, we get a packaged idea of what Christmas should be. Despite problems, the characters are still able to work things out and have not only a memorable but an epic Christmas that tops any past memories of the holiday. Again, it's like this existential phenomenon. There is a build-up toward Christmas and when the holiday actually comes, magic and wonder fill the hearts of everyone gathered around the hearth which is ironically right next to the Christmas tree. Hot cocoa, gingerbread cookies, roasted chestnuts ('on an open fire'), building snowmen, going for sleigh rides, opening mountains of presents, wassailing (whatever the hell that is), decorating a nine foot Christmas tree by threading popcorn and cranberries are the images of Christmas we get from the movies and songs. Anything less is not acceptable.
However, there are movies like: 'A Christmas Story' (1983), 'Christmas Vacation' (1989), 'Elf' (2003), 'Bad Santa' (2003), and of course 'Home Alone' (1990). In these movies, things are not 'perfect' and everything goes haywire on the big day. You end up in a pink bunny suit, which was a present from Aunt Clara and that Christmas turkey you were dreaming of got eaten by the Bumpus' smelly hounds. Not to mention that your father tried to display a tacky lamp, in the shape of a woman's leg, in your window for all the neighborhood to see. And did I mention that you actually almost succeeded in shooting your eye out after using your Red Ryder BB again? Or you could end up having a Christmas where your bonus never comes because your boss decided to do away with them. So you cannot build your family that swimming pool they were dreaming of. Then your crazy shit-for-brains cousin Randy decides to kidnap your boss in order to make things right. In the process, you killed Aunt Bethany's cat and burned down the Christmas tree. And Christmas dinner consists of jello mold filled with cat shit and a very bone dry turkey. Or, you forget your kid at home while your family is en route to New York and do it again the next year en route to Paris. Think of those moments, and you have the anti-thesis to a Bing Crosby Christmas, where everything goes wrong despite your best intentions and ambitious plans to make it a perfect holiday.
So know that if you don't have the Christmas promised to you by the iconic movies and songs, that you're still doing fine. Take this from a Jew who watches it all through a plate glass window smiling because he doesn't have to get involved. He just smacks his head in exclamation, 'Oy vey! Goyem!'
However, know, that as a Jew, it is not an easy time of year. Even though I am an outside observer, it is still very strange watching the majority of the nation partake in something that has become for all intensive purposes, American, and by not doing anything I feel very un-patriotic. I don't feel bad, at least, not anymore, for not celebrating Christmas. Believe me, I don't have any desire to partake in the 'joy' of the holiday. Not at all. But it's strange that the religious meaning has been totally stripped from a day that should be completely religious. Again, I'm not speaking for everyone. There are many friends and individuals I know who find a lot of religious significance to Christmas. As they should. It revolves around the birth of a religion's personal 'lord and savior', Jesus Christ Superstar. But for some strange reason, Christmas is now just as American as the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving. It is a religious holiday that because of it's universal nature, is shared by many who aren't even Christian.
And it's hard to stay out of the whole Christmas show pony. Every television channel has some kind of Christmas themed special. Every talk show gives away gifts and money. Every office and business has a holiday party. My father's family business always had a holiday party and guess who dressed like Santa? Well, my dad does have the build for it. How can you not participate? I've done Secret Santa and have gone to parties to pig out on sugar cookies shaped like reindeer and stockings. So now I ask, as a non-Christian, how are you supposed to participate?
I had a lively debate lately with a friend about the commercialization and gaudy display of Christmas. I brought up the fact that my son, who loves PBS, has been watching the Curious George Christmas special over and over again. He became obsessed with presents and a Christmas tree because he thought this was 'normal'. I mean, doesn't everyone, in the end, decide to celebrate Christmas because they don't want to be left out? Everyone does this, right? Wrong. Aside from not actually being Christian, my fear is that I do not want my son to have a stigma like I did when I was little. Why should Jewish children be ashamed of their heritage because they don't celebrate was has become so Americanized? I don't want my son feeling like he has to participate so that he doesn't feel left out. So, I explained to my son hat we, as Jews, do not celebrate Christmas. We have a string of lights in our apartment, but that's it. And they are lights, which have no affiliation with Christmas at all. We put them up to bring more light and color into the apartment since in winter, it is dark and depressing by 3:30 every afternoon. Lights are completely a-religious. Everything else on the other hand is debatable.
I don't know what the answer is in terms of remaining completely true to your beliefs but polite to your friends and neighbors. We've become hyper PC about the whole thing and wish each other 'happy holidays' or are sure to include Kwanzaa and Winter Solstice. However, when you think about it, Christmas is not the end all be all of the holiday season. Just about every culture and religion has some kind of festival or holiday about light.
Christmas certainly involves a lot of ideas surrounding light, both literally and figuratively. The whole story of the three wise men (magi) following the star of Bethlehem in order to give gifts to baby Jesus. But Jews have Hannukkah, which is about the miracle of oil burning for eight nights and the revolt of the Maccabees against the Greeks. Hindus have Diwali, a festival celebrating the new moon and triumph of light/good over dark/evil where diryas (lights) are illuminated and mithai (sweets) are eaten and gifts are exchanged. Kwanzaa, a celebration dating to 1966, and the name comes from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza ('first fruits of the harvest'). It has seven principles, like unity and faith, that are represented through the lighting of seven candles. There's also the Tazaungdaing festival within Buddhism, which celebrates the full moon and end to the rainy season in places like Burma. In some locales, there are robe weaving competitions, while in others lights are lit in hot air balloons and released.
Then, of course, there is winter solstice itself. The Zuni and Hopi tribes have the festival of Soyal, which celebrates the return of the sun and is seen as a time for both purification and renewal. Prayer sticks, pahos, are made to bless the community along with their homes and possessions. Yalda is the Iranian winter solstice festival, where Mithra, the sun god, who, like Jesus, was born to a virgin mother, and represents goodness, truth, and friendship is celebrated. The Chinese have the Dongzhi festival, which is celebrated by families eating with one another. One item eaten, mostly in Southern China, is tangyuan, a ball of rice which symbolizes reunion. And in Northern China, dumplings are eaten. This custom dates to the Han dynasty where poor people suffered chilblains (blisters and inflammation from the cold) on their ears; the dumplings were given to the poor to warm them up and because they resembled ears. Solstice itself marks the darkest day of the year, where we go from long nights and short days to the opposite. After solstice, the light literally begins to return again and everyone plunged in winter begins dreaming of spring. And of course solstice has links to Stonehenge and Druids, but just about every culture has some form of solstice/light festival.
I get it, though. Christmas is a major holiday for the dominant religion of this country. However, as an outsider, I see through the artifice of the holiday. For many, Christmas offers a day filled with warmth, light, and joy amidst the darkness and somberness of winter. For one day immortalized and suspended in time, individuals can be surrounded by loved ones with good food and cheer. What I don't get, however, is the marathon up until Christmas Eve. It's almost like there is more hype in the preparation than the actual day. Or maybe it's just because to me, it is just another day. Everything up until Christmas has such a glorified importance and careful amount of planning. I can only imagine how people feel the day after. It must be like what Jews feel right after the string of Jewish holidays in the fall. There is probably a feeling like you're coming down from a cloud, arriving back to the harsh realities of life. I guess that's why Christmas is so special to those who celebrate it. But the point is that many people do not and should not be forced or shamed into celebrating even the joy of the day.
In fact, the point is that there is more than just Christmas. So making everything about a Christian centered holiday is just not fair. In NYC, I never feel that the city overwhelms you with Christmas. I feel that there is a conscious effort to remember that there are people coming from all parts of the world who celebrate many different things. In fact, I enjoy Christmas in New York. Looking at shop windows like Macy's and Bloomingdale's or going to the Union Square Holiday Market have become iconic. You can go ice skating at Rockefeller Center or go to Dyker Heights (in Brooklyn) to see holiday lights. I just feel that even the Christmas centered events are a-religious and it's not all about Jesus and Santa Clause. However, there is still an over-commercialization, even in NYC. Stores are open until the last minute and bargain shopping is not only encouraged; here, it's a sport. I've worked retail around the holidays and it only brings out the worst in people. They dicker over the language in the store's latest ad bulletin and try to convince you that because it's Christmas, you should give them the sale price even though the sale ended two weeks ago.
Again, I don't want to sound like Scrooge, but Christmas has been so stripped of its meaning that it's hard not to be negative. What should be about kindness, joy, and heart is more about greed, consumerism, and selfishness. I guess my hope for humanity is that we realize that the romanticized principles on Christmas should be applied to every single day of the year. And perhaps that's what people strive to accomplish by listening to the hype; it's the idea that on Christmas, we can forget our woes and relax with family and friends. We can return to a moment in time that exists outside of time, where time is linear and we each create a Norman Rockwell snapshot that will be remembered for years to come. The mall fights and stampedes are forgotten; the high rate of suicide and identity theft is discarded by the side of the highway. What we, as a society, try to create is rustic, simplistic joy based off of nostalgia and fiction. But is that so bad, really? Christmas is a day where time stands still. You know that you went over the budget for presents and might not be able to pay your bills, but let's worry about that tomorrow. For now, you can get cozy by the fireplace and sip hot cocoa while you sing along to the record player crooning Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra.
Have a Merry Christmas, for those of you that celebrate. And for the rest of us, it's just another day where we must figure out how we belong without assimilated to the point of stripping ourselves of our own culture/religion.