It’s a crisp December Saturday. Walking through the mall, I’m surrounded by gingerbread scented candles, red and white sweaters, and the constant chirping of jingle bells. I am not nostalgic for gathering round the tree. I am not excited to tear open red and gold striped boxes. I just needed a new pair of jeans before Christmas, and the debt I owe on this account is two hours of “All I Want for Christmas is You” blared through blown overhead speakers (and $50). To top it all off, I won’t be going to church, seeing family, making cookies, or even getting presents on December 25*.
This is my life as a Jewish American.
Being Jewish is often difficult to explain. Our “bible” is the same as the Christian one, just without the Jesus parts. A lot of Jews, especially in America, rarely attend synagogue (Jewish church), but still eat traditional Jewish foods, question everything, and disappoint their mothers.
Growing up, being Jewish often meant explaining that I celebrate Hanukkah (Chanukkah? Chanukka?) instead of Christmas. It became easy to say Hanukkah is Jewish Christmas, but this is hardly true in a religious sense. Just as Valentine’s Day is really a holy day for a specific saint which American capitalism has bastardized into a chocolate-ravaged exaltation of “true love”, Hanukkah was originally the festival of lights before the free market got its grubby hands on it. Its eight nights (the Jewish calendar begins each “day” at sundown, as it follows the lunar, not solar, cycle) celebrate the miraculous victory of the Maccabees (a particular group of Jews) over whoever was trying to murder all the Jews at the time. During the battle for the Maccabees’ right to be Jewish, their temple (Jewish church) was destroyed, leaving only enough oil left to light the candles for one night. Even though he wasn’t there to stop the Maccabees from being persecuted in the first place or to even save their temple, God was clearly on the Maccabees’ side, and the oil stayed lit for eight craaaazy nights.
Culturally, “Jewish Christmas” is actually pretty accurate. Conveniently for major retail outlets, Hanukkah also happens to take place in December. What’s the only logical game plan? Make Hanukkah as much like Christmas as possible! Buying stuff makes everyone complete, and is the only really meaningful way to celebrate a holiday in America — and like every other American industry, the Jews are doing it way better. An eight day festival means we get presents, eat latkes, and play dreidel for an entire week, not this weak-ass one morning bullshit.
Despite the Christmas-ization of Hanukkah, growing up as a Jew in America means awkwardly explaining things to people, not believing in Santa, and lots of Chinese food. For example, I never believed in Santa, even growing up in a family which was half Presbyterian — we gave each other gifts, but it was always very clearly “from Mom and Dad.” So in Kindergarten, when all my friends started telling me how excited they were for an old man to bring them stuff via chimney (an architectural feature half the houses in my hometown didn’t even have), I laughed and told them this guy didn’t even exist. A few kids insisted I was wrong, others cried. The teacher had to call my mom, and that night we had a talk about respecting other people’s beliefs — and specifically keeping my mouth shut tight about Santa Claus.
While being Jewish at Christmas may still mean getting presents, it also means enduring (at least) a month of blissfully ignorant “Merry Christmas” wishes. It’s not just Jews who might not connect with this well-intended greeting, of course; UTD is full of diverse religions, cultures, and celebrations. So while it may be tempting or normal to spread Christmas cheer, “Happy Holidays” includes at least one more religious group in the spirit of Christmas, at the cost of just one more syllable.
*Technically false. Thank God Hanukkah overlaps with Christmas this year.