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The December Dilemma Is a Choice

The December Dilemma is a choice. I firmly believe this. Every year around this time, millions of Jews try to figure out how to stop their kids–or themselves (though few will admit this outright)–from wanting to bandwagon onto the all-encompassing Christmas holiday. From what was drilled into me during my conversion journey, apparently we fear that if we make too big a deal out of Chanukah, or–Hashem forbid–allow a decorated tree into our homes, our children will somehow automatically be inspired to believe in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.

Can someone please tell me exactly how that’s supposed to work? Maybe I missed something prior to mikvah. Does tinsel have some inherent proselytizing property? Does a big, fat Chanukah celebration somehow go around in a circle and turn Jewish sparks into Christian ones? It seems to me our congregations keep doing a really good job turning young-adult Jews firmly away from synagogue life on their own, all year long, with no end in sight, anyway. So why do we lay so much blame–and anxiety–on someone else’s doorstep?

No, really. These are not rhetorical questions. I’d like answers, please.

From putting up my first of what I intend to be many future Eitz Moeds (firmly Jewish holiday trees) this year, I’ve become quite familiar with the discomfort some Jews feel when the subject of Christmas arises. Trouble is, to me it always seems like an automatic response. One version or another of, “Oh, no! Not Christmas, again! Shield your eyes from the sight of trees! Plug your ears from the sound of caroling! After all….it’s….NOT…JEWWWWWWISH!!!”

And? So? Because the reasoning here is not self-evident to me. All I can see in a moan like that is fear, not reason. It’s a fear I can understand. There are far fewer of “us” than there are of “them”, and historically “they” tried to make us number less and less for years. But that and controversial twentieth-century Jewish Population Survey conclusions taken together still don’t mean that Christmas will steal Jewish souls if we’re not vigilant.

I understand some people believe the world will come to an end if a Jew ever stands up publicly and declares, “I put up a tree and I liked it,” much less, “and I’ll do it again and, furthermore, it was a Jewish tree and it’s a Jewish act and I’ll back that up and tell you why.” I know, because I did, and I did, and I will, and, furthermore, it was, and it is, and I did. But to some people, no matter how many lulavs and etrogs are sticking out of my Magen David-topped tree, it’s still a Christmas tree.

Why? I think because they’re afraid to see it any other way. I can’t change their minds, nor do I care to try. My December minhagim are Jewish enough for me. What really concerns me is that by refusing to accept the idea that now largely secular celebratory customs of Christmas origin can be repurposed as secular Jewish customs–while at the same time harping over and over again about how “minor” Chanukah and its attendant celebration allegedly are supposed to be–all we do is make our kids feel even more left out at this time of year.

And, dammit, no, I’m sorry. Although Chanukah does not have Sabath-similar work restrictions attached to it, that in no way means the intent of the holiday is not to celebrate mightily. Or merrily, for that matter. To my convert eyes, our fear of assimilation has us afraid not just of Christian holidays, but of our own, too.

That’s an enormous shame.

Here’s what I think happens when you let your Jewish child–or yourself–explore nontraditional methods for celebrating Hebrew calendar holidays: they continue to look forward to the holidays, next year. Of course, I’m not advocating plopping a Santa-laden, Star of Bethlehem-topped evergreen tree in your Jewish living room on a rotating stand that plays Joy to the World. But a tree carefully hung with symbols of Jewish life? More likely next year little Shmuley asks, “Can we hang more wild beasts this year?,” rather than, “Mom, can I talk to you about your relationship with Jesus Christ?”

Yet, year after year, we dig in our collective heels, grumble an angst-based “No,” and virtually will the December Dilemma into being ourselves. Then to make matters worse, we complain about it all month, reifying the problem into concrete reality as if it’s a living thing, like some sort of holiday golem conjured up to cause Jewish holiday catastrophe. Except we conveniently never ask whether we’re the very ones doing the conjuring.

So, nu? So you want a December Dilemma-free holiday season? Stop conjuring. Relax. Call a tree a tree. And for Pinchus’ sake, stop belittling Chanukah. Why shouldn’t the festival of lights be filled with all the ruach you can muster?

Again, no rhetoric intended. I want you to think about that. I expect this post to hit a nerve with some readers. Tell me about it in the comment thread. We’re Jews. We argue. That’s what we do.

Not that I need to leave you with any more of a conversation starter, but there’s one more thing I’ve been wondering about. For those Jews who still can’t see my putting up a tree as a Jewish act although that’s how I intended my act, I suggest thinking about my tree as turkey bacon. Oh, how we love our turkey bacon. It’s not the actual, forbidden item (which many of us wouldn’t dream of giving up in the first place, anyway.) But it’s similar. And, dammit, why shouldn’t we at least have the gobbling variety, since we can’t have the oinking kind? So tell me, how much do you covet your myriad versions of stand-in treyf? The ones you would never dream of giving up?

And how Jewish is that?

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For a wide variety of perspectives regarding the “December Dilemma”, I encourage you to visit the InterfaithFamily.com Hanukkah and Christmas page.

Categories: JEWISH HOLIDAYS

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

My Bio | My Conversion | My Family Reunion

Contact: mikedoyleblogger@gmail.com

8 replies

  1. The reason there is no December Dilemma is that late December is everyone’s holiday. The reason for the season is the Winter Solstice, the original December celebration. All of us live on Earth, so it “belongs” to all of us; for those in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the Summer Solstice. Humanity desperately needs to get back in touch with the rhythms of nature and honor them. We are part of the Earth, not separate from it. Dissocating from nature has led humanity to a dangerous environmental precipice. The Sun returns for all of us in the Northern Hemisphere, and we all have the right to honor and celebrate it.

    Also, evergreen trees are not Christian symbols. They represent life continuing in the dead of winter. People have been decorating their homes with evergreen branches for thousands of years.

  2. There is a great fear by many – and has been for a long time about future of Judaism. Interfaith marraiges is one telling aspect – and one that our congregation has generally stood apart from much of Reform Judaism in accepting them (given Rabbi Schaalman’s beliefs and practices). Many find it ironic that it is easier for a same-sex Jewish couple to find a Rabbi to marry them than it is for a mixed-faith/mixed-sex (is that the right expression?) couple.

    However- one of the most central tenants of Reform Judaism is that we each decide our beliefs and practices. I have no more right to tell you how to celebrate Hannukah as you do for me…

    So I’m going to skip trying to justify others behaviors – particularly those I may not agree with – and just talk about my own.

    My family growing up never had a tree. I would guess my parents didn’t either. I don’t want one -regardless of what my kids may or may not ask for. (Curiously – Joella last year at age four brought it up – and this year she hasn’t – although she did tell me that her stuffed bear “Share-a-cino” is Jewish but celebrates both Hannukah and Christmas).

    The reason for me is very much tied up in how I personally view my Jewish Identity. I spent much of my early childhood living in a small town (Kankakee, IL) in the late 60’s and early 70’s where I was very much “The Other”. I remember trying to reason with a young Baptist friend (in 5th grade) who literally was crying hysterically because he was taught that I was going straight to hell (a picture that was very clearly illustrated to him). He simply could not fathom the possibility that there could be a different reality for me from what he was taught.

    I saw myself as different from them. I didn’t believe in Jesus, I didn’t go to church, I didn’t celebrate Christmas. For my family – our celebration do not include a tree. (FWIW – we did do “Santa Claus” when I was very young – but I did – with some cues from older sister figure out it was a farce ).

    For my kids and my house – I want to have a distinct Jewish Identity. For us – this means NOT having a tree. We don’t do Santa Claus either – for a number of reasons. I just don’t see a need for a tree.

    But – that’s FOR ME. I don’t keep kosher in slightest. If there’s a crisis at work – I’ll work late on a Friday night or a Saturday morning. Arguably either of those could be consider “Much Less Jewish” (if such a thing can be said – which in the end is ridiculous) than putting up a $@(%*’ing tree…

    So – if there’s any contraversy on this subject it should ONLY be within a family. I believe anyone JUDGING you (or any other Jew) who wants to have a tree to celebrate Hannukah – or The Winter Solstace – or Festivus – or heck – even Christmas has issues of their own.

    The thing to keep in mind – as a colleague of mine pointed out recently: in the must secular nation in the world – Christmas is a Federal Holiday. Therefore – from this perspective – it’s a secular holiday.

    Is it “Not Jewish” to fly a US Flag on Independance Day?

    For the record – I don’t fly a flag on July 4th either. I don’t see why I need one. Just like I don’t need a Tree on Dec 25. So maybe – neither of these has nothing to do with my Jewish Identity. Move along – nothing to see here… 🙂

  3. Well you’ve inspired me to blog about this myself. I’m Orthodox(ish) and there is a general disdain for any and all things non-Jewish; because Jews have fought like hell to have our religious freedom. But the freedom comes with exposure and the acute awareness of being the ‘other’. With that being said, the “December Dilemma” is really something that is based in fear more so than practicality.

    Last Christmas, (like every Christmas, including, G-d willing, this upcoming one) I volunteered to visit a nursing home where too many of our elderly are left alone with no friends or family to visit them. We had movies and hot chocolate by the fireplace; but due to the timing (it was really early), many of the residents missed the movie. We felt bad leaving them, but the entertainment was over. So we thought. Someone came up with the idea to sing Christmas carols. Ok, not really my idea of a good time. Trust me, I love the sound of Christmas music…but I’m an instrumentalist, not a singer. Also it was fine to sing “Frosty the Snowman” or “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, but after that, requests were coming in for “Greensleeves” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. Oh, my….what’s an Orthodox Jewish girl to do? Well this one actually grew up in a church so I could kind of accommodate them. Yes, I had fleeting thoughts of “Oh boy; my Rabbi would KILL me if he would see this!”. But that feeling was trumped by the looks of appreciation and joy on the residents faces. And that’s when it hit me.

    I could sing Christmas songs all day…and it’s fine. Because I don’t believe in the religious aspect of what I’m seeing; and I fully appreciate the emotional effect that Christmas (well any) music has on people. So I have nothing to fear. Yes, I can (and will/should) belt out “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” with gusto.

    (Too bad I didn’t always remember the words so well; thankfully, the residents were singing along and pretty tolerant of us Jews who were leading them in Christmas carols!)

  4. Since bacon is not part of mainstream religious ritual I am not quite understanding the comparison between decorated holidays trees and turkey bacon? One is a meat product and the other is a meat product. Similar in look but different in taste I imagine (I don’t eat either one).

  5. I don’t think Jews parents are worried a tree will turn their kids into Christians. But they do want their children to grow up with strong Jewish identities.

    “What really concerns me is that by refusing to accept the idea that now largely secular celebratory customs of Christmas origin can be repurposed as secular Jewish customs”

    I’d prefer other groups didn’t take Jewish concepts, repurpose them and use them for their holidays. Yes, there are secular uses of Christmas trees too but decorated evergreens represent Christmas which is a Christian holiday. It’s like spinning the dreidel for for Easter.

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