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Taking another look at ‘The December Dilemma’

I have a little confession to make: I’ve never been a big fan of Christmas. My wife gets a lot of enjoyment out of listening to the music and looking at the lights, but to me it’s always felt like someone else’s culture being shoved down my throat for a month. And then there’s having to call school musical directors to convince them to include something other than Christmas songs in the “Winter Concert” (hah!). I have basically grimaced and (barely) tolerated the month of December for most of my life.

When I was growing up, most of the Jewish kids I knew had two Jewish parents, and Christmas felt like a threat, like we were being proselytized by the majority culture. It felt like the boundary between us and Christmas had to be kept strong lest the shiny bauble threaten our Jewish identity.

Lately I’ve been rethinking this — a little. Nowadays most of the Jewish kids I know have one Jewish parent, and expecting these families to keep Christmas out doesn’t seem realistic, given that they almost certainly have close family (grandparents, cousins, even mom or dad) that celebrate it. Asking them to keep Christmas out is only going to teach them that “Judaism” asks for something they can’t (and wouldn’t even really want to) give.

I’ve also come to realize that my attitude toward Christmas reflected a rather paranoid view of the standing of Jewish people in this country. Today, I’m very comfortable with America’s acceptance of Jews; with some exceptions, most problems are of misunderstanding rather than malice. The fact that people are aware enough about the issues that they’re willing to say “Happy Holidays” so as not to alienate us is actually pretty awesome. And let’s face it, Christmas has been so thoroughly secularized that if it proselytizes anything, it’s consumer culture rather than Christianity.

Today I think that it isn’t really up to the majority culture to undersell its big holiday — although like I say, I appreciate the realization that not everybody celebrates Christmas. Rather, it’s up to us to make our Jewish life compelling enough so that it satisfies our (and our kids’) needs for meaning and connection. If we do that, than Christmas doesn’t pose any kind of threat, if it ever did. And if we don’t do that, then Christmas isn’t the problem.

We live in a multi-hued, multicultural society, with all kinds of people in it. That’s true in our schools, in our neighborhoods, even in our own homes. Just as we would like our friends and neighbors to respect and even enjoy our holidays and customs, so we should respect and enjoy theirs. A strong sense of Jewish identity, and what that means and what it offers, is the basis from which we explore and enjoy the world. Including Christmas.

And let’s face it, the lights are pretty neat.