As an observing Jew, I always find this time of year a little confusing, especially when Chanukah has already passed. We wish each other “Happy Holidays,” which is, for all intents and purposes, a “pareve” way of saying “Merry Christmas.” We say “Happy New Year,” which of course makes sense, since we live our daily lives by the Gregorian calendar, but we celebrated the New Year that really matters to us back in September. And the country goes on holiday – a well-deserved break (especially this year), but the break is necessarily focused on Christmas and New Year. So American Jews make their statement with Chinese food and a movie (though especially not this year, please).
I suppose it’s the whole “holiday spirit” atmosphere that gives me a bit of an “outsider” feeling because it feels, on one level, like they’re not my holidays. I’m not the first to make the distinction between Thanksgiving and the Christmas season: Thanksgiving has a distinctly non-denominational feel to it – it’s the great equalizing holiday. Not so for Christmas, of course.
But as it turns out, there is strong evidence that American-style “holiday spirit” is actually less a Christian phenomenon than an American one. Obviously, Christmas has always been a time for rejoicing and celebrating for Christians, but the uniquely American version of it – particularly the commercial aspect and everything that has grown up alongside that – is also largely non-denominational. The myth is that Jews “imitated” Christmas by commercializing Chanukah. It turns out that Americans – Jewish or Christian or otherwise – commercialized the winter holidays on a parallel track, starting in the late 19th century. The modern conception of Santa Claus, for example, was “invented” by the Coca Cola Company in the early 1930s to “sell product” (tellingly, the illustrator, Haddon Sundblom, who was hired by Coca Cola to paint the new version of St. Nick, used as a model a friend who was a salesman!). Prior to that, there was no “standard” version of Santa – sometimes (according to the Coke website) he was depicted as a tall gaunt man, sometimes as an elf, and there was even a “scary Claus” depiction – hardly the warm, jovial, lovable version that we picture at Macy’s.
It seems absurd to take partial credit for a holiday season driven by commercialism, profit, and acquisition. But the knowledge that “the season” has a life independent of another religion’s holidays does give it an equalizing feel – we can see it as a sort-of anti-Thanksgiving – and I can take a stand on that very low ground. From that vantage point, I can look up at what’s really going on during this season, allowing for what Swedish Bishop and theologian Krister Stendahl calls “holy envy.” Holy envy, as I’ve written before, is the beautiful idea that it’s ok to admire something lovely and praiseworthy in another faith, even if I don’t intend to adopt it for myself – I don’t betray my own religion by admiring Christmas and the beautiful way it is celebrated. Sweeping away all the muck of the American shopping season, Christmas is a beautiful holiday and we can rejoice with our Christian friends and find joy in their joy.
Christmas belongs to the Christians, Chanukah to the Jews; “the season,” for what it’s worth, belongs to all of us.
Having said all that, don’t panic: I don’t intend to sing Adon Olam this Shabbat to the tune of Silent Night. But it is a beautiful melody!
Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a blessed Shabbat filled with heavenly peace,
Rabbi Sam Levine
My Thursday morning class will be on break next week (i.e. Dec 31, as will my article for the newsletter) – we’ll pick up again on Jan 7th, with a look at parashat Sh’mot, the first portion in the book of Exodus.