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Monday, December 04, 2006

The Other Side of Christmas (Children Mentioned)

This is the post where the Jew tries to explain how she views Christmas...

Skip reading if Christmas is your favourite holiday, you're a caroler, or don't care to hear an outsider talk about your holiday...

Oh, wait. There's the other side of Christmas too. The one that makes me feel like an ever-loving hypocrite as I drive down Connecticut Avenue belting out "O Holy Night." I need to listen to my Christmas music as I drive out of the city because once I'm back in the presence of the kids, it's Dan Zanes and Raffi. It's Shiralala every Friday as we make the challah. It's all about avoiding drawing attention to "that holiday that we don't celebrate."

It's a Christian world, just like it's a fertile world. So I expect the majority to rule and for all stores and street corners to be decked out for the holiday just as I expect that most people will think it's perfectly fine to ask if my husband is bonking me and if we'll be having another child soon. It's not "right" per se; but it's expected.

But this is the other way I see Christmas: The sparkling lights on trees and the red ribbons around every street lamp? It's sort of like showing a Jewish child and entire parking lot full of ice cream trucks and then smiling benignly while you remind them that they can't have a popsicle.

My son's nickname is the MOPT (pronounced Mop-tee) which stands for the Minister of Toilet Paper. Whenever someone annouces that they have to go to the bathroom, he follows them to the toilet and stands waiting at attention to rip off the toilet paper. But since Thanksgiving, when the first Christmas lights went up, he has been renamed the Crazy Sparkle Light Fiend. It's like driving around town with a junkie who sees a dealer on every corner. Our drive home sometimes takes an additional fifteen minutes as we meander down cul-de-sacs to see strings of lights draped over bushes. And then the second you point out a set of lights to him, he acknowledges them by saying, "sparkle lights" and then immediately follows it with "more sparkle lights." Like a freakin' junkie.

And feeding into this problem is that my attempts at separation are feeble at best. Josh can drive home without noticing the lights and he never turns to the all-Christmas-all-the-time radio station. But I love seeing the lights too. And having only been in a house with a Christmas tree a handful of times in my life, I'm attracted to the unknown of the holiday. Josh has dated non-Jewish. He's done the Christmas thing. But I've never gotten to get celebrating Christmas out of my system. So I want to see the lights too. And I want to eat candy canes. And take part in all of the secular commercialism that surrounds the holiday. Without actually celebrating the holiday. Since I'm usually burned out by December 18th. And I'm Jewish. And we don't celebrate Christmas.

If you're Christian, you probably can't relate and ask, "what's the problem with throwing up a few lights this year?" Because Christmas isn't ours. And Chanukkah isn't Christmas. It's this tiny holiday that has one commandment tied to it--light the candles for 8 nights. That's it. No gifts. No festive meal. Americans commercialized Chanukkah in order to give children a focus during the season. So they didn't feel left out. I don't need to celebrate Chanukkah as if it's Christmas. Think about it this way--do you feel left out during Rosh Hashanah and feel like you need to celebrate a holiday too? It sends a strange message to kids--our religion isn't interesting enough or celebratory enough so we need to grab other people's traditions. It detracts from our fun holidays like Purim and Simchat Torah.

The Christian world always looks at this dilemma and says, "what's the harm?" But it's sort of the same attitude that drives your Aunt Margaret to ask you if you're going to have a baby. What's the harm in asking a simple question in the fertile world? If only 12% of the country is infertile, then odds are that when you ask the question, you're hitting one of the 88% who do like to think about their fertility. Newly-minted brides are downright giddy thinking about how they'll start trying soon. They don't mind the question as much because it makes them feel as if they've arrived. They are finally considered an adult and mother material if people are asking them about procreation.

But hit one of those 12% and you'll have annoyed at best and sobbing at worst. Talking about my fertility is probably one of the last things I want to talk about in casual conversation anymore. Talking about my fertility means thinking about blood clotting and Lovenox. Or finding the money for treatments. Or injections. Or wondering if it's physically possible for someone to hold their breath for nine months.

Which is what it's like to be Jewish during the Christmas season. It's annoying at best to have people remind you to have a merry Christmas. And it's isolating at worst to think about how you're out of the loop. I have this image in my head of someone pressing their face against a snowy window while they watch the family inside the warm house decorating the tree when I think about being Jewish in a Christian world. It's easy to be Christian around Rosh Hashanah. It's not everywhere you turn. You probably don't even think about it because radio stations aren't playing High Holiday music (a little Neil Diamond Kol Nidre, anyone?) and every store isn't decked out for the New Year. But it's impossible for Jews not to think about it because it's sort of like someone waving a party invitation in your face. A party where you're not invited. It's not that you want to go, but you certainly don't want to be reminded that you're not part of the celebration.

Sometimes it feels a bit like when I'm trying to run errands and everywhere I turn, I'm faced with a pregnant belly and reminders of my own infertility. Pregnant women walking around blissfully unaware in their carefree pregnancies. Never thinking that the woman standing behind them in line may not want to watch them rub their belly and coo at their unborn child to "stop kicking, Mommy, darling."

But just like pregnant women can't hide their bump when they face my infertility, I don't expect Christians to hide their holiday from me. I certainly am not saying don't celebrate Christmas. But there are ways to celebrate that are private and cozy. And there are ways to celebrate that remind those who are out of the loop how far they are outside of the loop. It's sort of the difference between putting up lights at your house and coming to my house and caroling. Because it's just really really really hard to explain to a child that we get Shabbat every week--with challah and grape juice and candles--when two seconds after we point out what they have in their corner, they go back to asking about those lights. And why we don't celebrate Christmas. It's something that most Christian parents probably don't deal with until Bat Mitzvah time--and then what non-Jewish kids want is the party, not the actual ceremony. And it's easier to explain religion to a middle schooler than it is to a two-year-old.

The analogy between Christmas and infertility doesn't truly match up because I don't necessarily want to be "in" in the grand sense of that word (I just want my music, lights, and a candy cane or two). And if I wanted to be in, I technically could be in by throwing up a tree in my living room and attending midnight Mass. But we're not going to do it because we're Jewish. And we're happy to be Jewish. And I am happy with the holidays that we have and enjoy them tremendously. And I know my interest in Christmas is directly tied to my idea of the IF Christmas. Which--as we all know--isn't like any Real Christmas that anyone has ever celebrated. It's the stuff of movies. It's just my own fantasizing about greener grass in someone else's yard.

When you whittle away all the layers, what remains is that when assumptions are made, people are bound to have their feelings nicked. The majority assumes that all people fall into the majority. Just like it's unfathomable for non-infertiles to understand why you may not be happy and want to celebrate at the baby shower of a pregnant woman, it's sort of unfathomable for Christian people to understand why I may not want to celebrate their holiday. Or be ambushed with Christmas ads and tinsel. Or be reminded to have a merry Christmas every time I make a purchase between Thankgiving and New Year's.

Damn...I think burnout has come early this year.

I'm beginning to sound a lot like a Grinch. A big, infertile, Jewish Grinch.

Um...Merry Christmas?

Candy cane anyone?

(Cringing as I wait for people to throw boughs of holly at me)


Anonymous said...

I really appreciate hearing about Christmas from a Jewish angle. I've never had a problem with the media, stores, schools, etc. choosing to not openly favor one religious holiday over another. As much as I may not mind hearing, "Merry Christmas!" from a perfect stranger, I can't imagine that I would be delighted to hear it were Christmas not something I celebrated. I hadn't thought of the IF comparision, but I can absolutely see that perspective. I know that I can only partially understand it, but I can certainly appreciate it.

I have a little greeting card business and I have only one Chanukkah design. I go back and forth on it- is it good to have the design? Does it suck that I only have one? Are Chanukkah cards something that people send, or is that just a Christmasized thing? (How should I spell Chanukkah?)

I'm sorry that people generalize and assume. I obviously know that it isn't a perfect world, but damn it, it should be.

Anonymous said...

It's been a long, long time since I considered Christmas as Christian... really, when you ask most people about Christmas, what's the first thing that pops into their minds - baby Jesus or Santa? My bet is on Santa.

My DP & I were raised Christian (me Lutheran, her Catholic) and we're currently in the process of converting to Buddhism which is quite different than how we were raised. There's no Christmas celebration in Buddhism, but we will always celebrate Christmas, because again, it's not about Christianity to us -- it's about family, the magic of Santa when you are a kid, baking cookies and trimming a tree while listening to holiday music.

DD said...

I think the correlation you made is really well done.

Carey touched upon what I was thinking, and that is what you seem to be attracted to is the commercialism of Christmas, which was done for the same reason as the commercialism of Channukah.

Christmas, if one was to really look at what it really is, is not candy canes, lights and pine trees. These pagan ideas were married to Christian ideas, and I look at the increase in commercialized Christmas as directly related to the decrease in actual dyed-in-the-wool Christianity (go ahead and throw holly at me as well for saying so).

I for one, am more into celebrating Christmas, not necessarily the Birth of Christ. I'm shallow and fickle like that.

Suz said...

I really like hearing this side as well because my sister and her family are Jewish while we are Christian. My sister converted when she got married and is raising her daughter in the Jewish faith. I love learning about this faith myself; however, I've wondered what will happen as our kids grow older and my sister's daughter sees the stack of presents for my sons under the tree. It's partially this that has made me determined to focus on our family traditions as we celebrate the holiday and less on the commercial aspect. I know that it's impossible to avoid - and that's what your post is partially about. I just wanted you to know that some Christians feel a little alienated from and by it as well.

Anonymous said...

I really don't think the majority of what we think of as Christmas is christian at all. Most of it is related to the yule celebrations - the trees, lights, all of that. It's a celebration of the depths of winter on December 21st, the solstice, that the days will now beginning to lengthen again. The early christians glommed on to the pagan holidays pretty succesfully! And don't even get me started on Santa, or Saint Nick, or Father Christmas! Did you know he's the patron saint of prostitutes? [Actually a heartwarming story, but I digress.] Anyway, I am culturally christian and was raised christian but personally view Jesus as one of many sons of god, along with Buddha and Mohammed, so definitely don't view myself as a "real" christian. But I'll go to the Christmas Eve carol services just because I like them, and I'll still say a prayer as a commemoration of the birth of Jesus.

Hey, maybe the rest of us who like Christmas but don't necessarily want to celebrate should just start celebrating the winter solstice like it used to be?

However, on to the IF angle, even as a christian who celebrates Christmas, I feel like the little girl looking in from the cold at the families with children. It seems there's always an "I want to have that in my life" angle when thinking about IF.

Anonymous said...

My father was Jewish, my mother is Catholic. She converted when they got married, but then had us all baptized after they got divorced--just 'cause she's crazy like that. I grew up with a little bit of everything, little bit of nothing, mainly leaning Catholic. Mr P & I got married in the Catholic church only because we were young and his parents would have lost it otherwise.

We've tried a few different churches and nothing fits. Miss P goes to preschool at the JCC because I want her to be able to identify with her Jewish heritage and I just don't know enough to give that to her. I'm happy that we live in a very Jewish part of Cleveland where she will grow up understanding that not everyone is Christian. (Point of fact, I didn't meet a Protestant until I went to college, only Catholics and Jews. It took me quite a while to realize they weren't dominant religions!)

We celebrate a secular Christmas, and she has an ecumenical Little People holiday display: Nativity scene (courtesy of her grandparents), Hannukah dinner, and Santa's sleigh. What we'll do in the future with respect to organized religion is anyone's guess. I want there to be something, but I can't find anything that speaks to me.

In the meantime, if you want to get out of DC and travel to a snowier clime, you're invited for Christmas Eve dinner at my place. I promise not to ask about future pregnancies.

Anonymous said...

What you've described (that I have heard described by many Jewish people) is similar to what it is like to be black in America, except it goes on all year round.

A Jewish colleague flipped out over the Christmas issue in the Hallmark store we were visiting, "You just don't know what it's like not to fit in and be different from everyone else! This is hard."

I just looked at her as if she had lost her damn mind. Of course, I as a black dreadlocked woman would NOT know what it's like not to fit in. RIIIGHT!!!

Anam said...

well as a pagan i could just get all smug and say the christians nicked everything from the pagans to start with (and the jewish) becuase they wanted to be popular 2000 years ago and becuase it was a requirement for the roman empire army thats how it spread so quickly... but we're so lax about all of it - we have the tree to remind us to renew our love for the people we cherish and thats about it.

Paper_whore said...

I feel a little of what you're describing, but in a different way. For you, this is still a religious holiday time of year. For me, an athiest, it's not and I get aggravated when that part of the season is shoved down my throat. I recently attended a Santa Parade where they did a little skit about what the true meaning of Christmas is. It wasn't goodwill toward men or celebrating family or peace on earth, it was a big hurray for Jesus. I respect everyone's right to their beliefs, but why does Jesus need to be part of a Santa Parade?

Obviously Christmas at my house is a secular event.

Anonymous said...

I was baptized Catholic, but was encouraged to determine what my own beliefs were as I grew up. I have nothing to do with the Catholic church or any form of organized religion. If I had to "pick" a religion, I think I more strongly identify with the beliefs of the Jewish religion than anything Christian.

That being said, Christmas in my world is all about tradition and family. I do not take part in any of the religious aspects of the holiday. I celebrate Santa, not Jesus. It isn't even so much the commercial aspect of the holiday that I identify with, it is the tradition.

It is also the sense of lost tradition that hits me the hardest during any holiday when it comes to our child-less status. I long for the day when we have a child to celebrate with and pass traditions down to. I ache for a family of my own to warp into my twisted version of what Christmas should be, food, family, laughter, love, tradition and even presents, but no baby Jesus.

I am curious, do you do anything on Christmas day? Is there a way you can celebrate your family and mark it as a special day without anything Christmas-y? A special meal or an annual trip to the movie theater or something?

Anonymous said...

From a Christian perspective, Christmas is purely secular. Nothing in the bible tells you to celebrate it and as previously noted Christmas has it's roots in the Pagan tradition. I resent Christians shoving this holiday down my Christian throat, as though there is a thou shall celebrate the birth of Christ written that I might have missed. I resent the commercialism and the fact that you're supposed to ignore your disfunctional family for the seaon. On the other hand, sometimes I wish the sentiments of Peace, Joy and Love would be enough. Happy Festivus!

ms. c said...

Ok, this is an interesting one, Mel! I have so much to say on this topic, but I'll just write a bit here.
Born and raised Jewish, I have a very strong identity. Growing up in a Jewish neighbourhood, and attending a Jewish school, I didn't feel left out of Christmas. It was not until high school, where I was one in a handful of Jewish kids, that I realized how little effect Christmas had had on my life, and how BIG it was for the rest of our society. It was a major realization: I was the one who wasn't like everyone else because I dindn't have candy canes, put up a tree, hang stockings, etc...
I think you have a point in comparing this realization to the one we had when we realized that we weren't going to get pregnant so easily. Except that the IF reality hits home every cycle, where as Christmas is just once a year.

Anonymous said...

Oh, please. No worries about your feelings. I'm a Christian and I'm sick of being bombarded with Christmas at every turn! Though I do love singing O Holy Night. By myself. In my car. Where no one can hear me.

Lyrehca said...

Amen, Sister!

Another fellow Jew here writing to say what an interesting comparison. Infertility in the fertile world and Jews among the Christmas-celebrators--nice insight.

Avi said...

Thank you for this post, to which I was referred by a dear friend.

I remember grappling with somewhat similar issues, from a very different perspective, as an American-born Israeli, over a decade ago. Today, as a spiritual atheist of Jewish cultural heritage living in Berkeley, all of the possible answers have changed, but the questions remain the same.

Again, thank you. May you find peace with this.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing a different perspective. What a wonderfully written post.

Southern Comfortable said...

It's funny, but I think you'd find that many Christians are actually annoyed with all of the fuss surrounding Christmas. I'm a strict Catholic, and it definitely annoys me. First off, even though it gets the most attention, it is not the most important holiday of the liturgical year-- Easter holds that honor. Second, the "Christmas season" actually occurs AFTER Christmas. The time from shortly after Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve is Advent, not Christmas. (The "Christmas season" in the liturgical year runs from Christmas day through teh Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6.) And, of course, the rampant commercialism and consumerism is simply disgusting.

Don't get me wrong. I love Christmas. But I'd love it if there weren't so much secular focus on Christmas.

Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting discussion to me. Your blog entry here is similar to an essay written by a dear friend of mine, Avi, who has posted here because I sent him here to read this. I believe he may have linked to what he wrote before.

When I read his take a few years ago I offered the same points offered by Carey and Sarah S. I'm totally in synch with those ladies. Many Christmas traditions -- and really many of my favorite ones -- come from Paganism.

If I am any religion I am Unitarian, which my husband continually points out doesn't really have any belief structure. Maybe that's true but that's what I like about it. It respects the individual's quest for spiritual meaning in the world without annoying creeds or interference by clergy telling you what to believe.

I remember reading a column by a Philadelphia Inquirer writer maybe 20 years ago about ALL the holidays at this time of year and the things they had in common, and I really liked the idea of a giant ecumenical celebration that shared certain common threads like the birth of a son/Sun, the return of light, good will, giving thanks. I would LOVE to add more cool traditions into my own.

When my parents got married, my Polish mother, an awesome cook and lapsed Catholic created a yummy tradition that married the Polish custom of the feast of seven fishes on Christmas Eve with my father's heritage as a New Englander whose career was as in the maritime industry. She made a huge pot of seafood chowder with seven different fishes. I love that idea of putting two things together to create a new tradition. (And in this case an amazingly delicious one. Not a Kosher one though, let me tell you.)

However, that said, my point of view here does not take into account what it's like to be a cultural minority, wanting to preserve the uniqueness of that culture, but seeing everybody celebrate what seems from the outside to be a fun but very not-your-culture holiday everywhere you look. (Am I getting this totally wrong? Feel free to tell me I still don't get it. Because I had a lot of trouble getting it before. Or as my friend Avi likes to say, azoy lang zol ikh lebn.

art-sweet said...


And Liana's point is spot on too.

Anonymous said...

Great post -- I'm thinking about this a whole lot since my five and three year-old kids are all hyped up about Santa and I feel like the grinch sometimes. Maybe some of us who aren't Christian sometimes just want it both ways and we don't want to admit that. So true, we want to be proud of our own identities but we also want to join in on the fun. As far as participation being ok because of the whole stealing pagan traditions, I don't know if I even really want to use that explanation since last time I checked, paganism also included orgies and animal sacrifice. ;)

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