If your Christmas has an undercurrent of unhappy, you’re doing it wrong. I say that as someone raised with Christmas, and as a Jew now looking from the outside in.
For the third year in a row, Ryan and I put up our Eitz Mo’ed this December. That’s the Tree of Jewish Holidays we created in 2011 to honor my mother of blessed memory’s Christmas tradition within a Jewish context. (To learn more about it, see Fifteen Christmases and an Eitz Moed, Sixteen Christmases and a Chanukah Bush, and reposts and comment threads on Interfaith Family and Jewcy.)
Our Eitz Mo’ed was also a response to the alleged December Dilemma, wherein Jews live in fear that the overwhelming presence of Christmas at this time of year will somehow magically turn them and their children into churchgoers. So if you’re a fellow Jew and your Chanukah has an undercurrent of angst, you’re doing that wrong, too.
Of course Chanukah was extraordinarily early this year, so there’s no pretense that our tree is a Chanukah bush. With handcrafted and carefully selected ornaments that symbolize the major holidays of the Hebrew calendar, it’s definitely more proudly Yid-ish than Yule-ish. But with Chanukah so far removed already, putting up the tree gave me cause to think about how I intersect with Christmas, now that I’m deep into my fourth holiday season as a non-celebrant.
In my original Eitz Mo’ed post I noted how the calendar of Jewish holidays gives me the chance to experience the joy and wonder and hope and love I used to associated with Christmas at various times throughout the entire year. But this year I can see what was there beneath–at least in my family. All that concentrated joy and wonder saved up for one time a year (like many Christian families, my family didn’t really celebrate Easter as the highest Christian holiday, either) made it very clear how less-than-joyful much of the rest of the year could be.
I never really grasped that before. It was just wrapped up into the overall “Aww” and awe of Christmastime. But driving around Sauganash this year to see the Chicago area’s famous suburban Christmas light displays, all those old feelings welled up again–this time with no happy hit of Chanukah to balance them out. It became very clear my experience of Christmas in my dysfunctional family of origin wasn’t so much, “Follow me in merry measure”, but, “Follow me in merry measure because the rest of the year really sucks.”
That’s sad, and I know mine is far from the only family that ever went there. And of course you can get there from Christianity’s central message that we are born sinners and must be redeemed by grace, embodied in Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. (Distinct from Judaism’s central message that we are all born in the image of God already, no redemption required.)
But I don’t think that’s what God intended.
Of course, Jews don’t believe in Jesus. Besides being Jewish, himself, he probably would have been surprised to learn that Paul of Tarsus invented a miraculous, fictional backstory for him 100 years later that became the basis of a new religion. Virgin birth? Loaves into fishes? Son of God? As fictional as a burning bush talking to Abraham and Moses parting a sea.
If you’re literal about Christianity or Judaism or Islam or any other tradition, I offer you no succor here except to say that I believe the word of God reaches us. Fact or fiction in our holy books makes no difference. Even if we wrote the stories, ourselves, that doesn’t mean God wasn’t working through us.
So no matter what we believe or who wrote whichever version of our holy books that we hew to, God remains God. Many paths, one finish line. Many stories, one main character. And whether you believe Jesus came to save us from ourselves or Adonai continually leads us out of our personal Egypts, do you really think Deity means for us to spend the balance of our lives pondering our faults instead of pooling our collective love and compassion to make the world a better place?
Do you love your children despite who they are, or because of it? Why would it be any different with Deity? And if Deity doesn’t concentrate on our faults, why do we so often?
The commercialization of Christmas notwithstanding, what a difference that kind of a perspective would have made for my family, during the holiday season and beyond. Didactic religion is its own reward. I prefer to meet God in the gray areas.
Christmas is awesome. Christianity is awesome. Judaism is awesome. Islam is awesome. And God is God. I think Rupaul got really close to it when he sang, “Christmas comes but once a year but every night of the year you gotta be shacked up with someone who loves you for who you are.” Because that’s how that which is higher than we are loves us.
So get out of your head. Raise your eyes to the heavens. Never forget that joy is the baseline, not the finish line. Me, I’m gonna pack up my pussycat wig and get on outta here. There are little smokies, pizza rolls, festing, friends, and films in my immediate future. In yours, whether there lies Christmas or merely Wednesday, may it be a joyful one.
May you be joyful always.
To see our Jewish holiday tree, visit my 2013 Eitz Mo’ed Album on Facebook.
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.