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?
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
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.