Wishing a Merry Christmas

On my evolution vis-a-vis the holidays. 

I have mixed feelings about the holiday season.

Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, I was part of a Jewish community that- while not as small as most people assume- was tiny compared to the seemingly endless cadres of miscellaneous Christian congregations.  Lexington contains hundreds of churches; there are three in a row on one of the main streets of my childhood, Tates Creek.

By comparison, there is one synagogue, and one temple.  Even the small Jewish community was divided, seemingly evenly, between the conservative Jews and the reform Jews.  My family was a part of the former, and we attended Ohavay Zion Synagogue, near my parents’ home.

During my early educational years, I attended a private Montessori school.  While I have overwhelmingly positive impressions of the quality of the education I received there, one downside of a private school was that they were not bothered by pesky separation of church and state issues, and as the holidays approached, Christmas celebrations abounded.

My clearest memory of those holidays at Community Montessori School is the singing.  All the students would sit in a big circle (it was more of a rectangle, actually, but we called it a circle) and sing Christmas carols.  I learned from my parents which ones were kosher- Jingle Bells, Frosty the Snowman, etc.- and which crossed the line, like Silent Night.  My parents seemingly had a ratings system, disqualifying certain tunes based on overt references to Jesus or Mary.

The three kings got a pass, probably because of my mom’s fascination with Amal and the Night Visitors.

As a sop to the Jewish students- in my class, that just meant me- we would always include a single Hanukkah song, selected for this purpose on the singular qualification that it was the only song the gentiles knew: the dreidel song.  As my classmates sang that song, I was aware that everyone was looking at me: this was my moment.  I was being explicitly included.

It backfired.  Not only did I feel ostracized by the whole holiday song exercise, I grew to despise the dreidel song, and to resent that it was the only nod towards my culture that made it into the sacred circle of holiday singing.  I developed an irrational anger towards that innocuous tune, one that I later transferred to a song much more worthy of my ire, but one that did not exist during my early childhood: Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song.

The holidays- heck, the whole month of December- was really hard for the only Jewish kid in the class.  Classmates talked about their Christmas plans, the gifts they were expecting, the holiday parties.  Some tried to evangelize at me.  One kid gave me a tin full of homemade cookies, which came with an invitation to his church.  My parents exchanged a look and warned me to keep him at a distance, though they let me keep the cookies.

Hanukkah became a bigger deal in our household than it is for most Jews, probably as a reaction to Christmas.  It became the holiday of big gifts, of big celebrations, of decorations.  I only learned many years later that it’s a relatively minor holiday, and that the bonanza celebrations are a purely American, strictly competitive phenomenon.

In short, my experience of the holiday season was defined by my role as a religious outsider.  It was a cogent reminder that I was not like these other kids, who regardless of race, class, or neighborhood, could all come together around the concept of Christmas.

As a foreseeable reaction to this experience, I used to hate Christmas.  I fought tooth-and-nail against a girlfriend who wanted us to acquire a small Christmas tree for our apartment.  I opted out of Christmas parties, and kept uncharacteristically quiet when confronted by holiday cheer.

In recent years, I have adjusted my perspective, in part through the realization that Christmas is, at its core, not a Christian holiday.  Its historical roots notwithstanding- it was basically imported wholesale from paganism- the way we celebrate the holiday season has precious little to do with religion.  It is a holiday of commercialism (our popular Christmas image of Santa Clause originated in the 19th century and was popularized by Coca-Cola), or less cynically, it is a holiday of American camaraderie.

It is a chance to take time away from our professions, to celebrate with our peers and with our families.  It is a time for the three universal elements of wintertime celebrations: light, green, and plenty.

My conversion, for lack of a better term, from holiday cynic to celebrant started on the margins and moved inward.  I like egg nog.  I love days off work.  An excuse to call my Christian relatives is a nice occurrence, and sharing family moments with my closest friends and partners is rewarding.  I have been welcomed into families during the holiday, and have been treated to abundant good food, plentiful strong drinks, and the occasional brightly-wrapped gift.

In retrospect, I see that my feelings of exclusion had less to do with the external factors of my Christian classmates and teachers, and more to do with my own decision to remain apart from those celebrations.  The Christians tried, they really did.  Heck, they even sang that dreidel song for me.  I made a decision to hold myself apart from the celebratory mood, perhaps as a prophylactic against any attempts to convert me.

This holiday season, as I prepare to embark on a series of holiday parties and celebrations, I feel like a celebrant, not a cynic.  I can see and appreciate the efforts of others to make me feel like a part of the holiday, and I am doing my best to add to the celebration and be a creator of the warmth and plenty.  I’m making my grandma’s cheesecake recipe for one party; the host is putting out a menorah and gelt as part of the decor.

I am heartened to move beyond old childhood prejudices and make the holiday season my own.  We have this incredible power to redefine things that bother us, and reconcile with painful experiences from our past.  I am trying to do that, with regards to the holiday season, in the service of my overall happiness.

Except with regards to that Adam Sandler song: may it be blotted from our collective history.

-AG

 

Published in: on December 12, 2019 at 2:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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