The "December Dilemma"
A discussion prepared for the Outreach Committee of Temple Adat Shalom, Poway, California (Saturday night, December 6, 1997)
I am indebted to Rabbi Steven Z. Leder and Dr. Alice Ginott for material in preparing this.
I - Why Christians celebrate Christmas:
- Because it marks the birth of what they believe to be God.
- Christmas celebrates the increase of light in the world and the minimal role of humans in that increase.
II - Why Jews should not "celebrate" Christmas:
- Christmas is not your holiday. Christmas is an important holiday for Christians, one of the two holidays that define their religion.
- Do you actually want to celebrate Christmas by going to church? Or do you just want to "ape" the simple family oriented activities? Let's not fool ourselves.
- Jews "celebrating" Christmas is an insult to those Christians who take the holiday seriously.
- "Celebrating" Christmas (on any level) will likely confuse your children.
- If you are an interfaith couple and you want to raise your children in both faiths, don't fool yourselves. Studies show that kids just end up with greater ambiguities and identity problems (aside from the studies, I meet them in my Intro to Judaism class as well).
- The non-religious aspects of Christmas have become crassly materialistic. Your kids don't need that.
- Most Jews who celebrate Christmas do so to "be like everyone else." Who are you kidding? This will not make them any more like the others.
- Celebrating Christmas and Chanukkah by calling them the "Winter Holidays" implies that they have something in common. This is true only in their deepest religious metaphor and they interpret that metaphor in uniquely and opposing ways.
III - Why Jews Celebrate Chanukkah:
- Chanukkah celebrates the first struggle for religious freedom in recorded history.
- Chanukkah celebrates the first struggle for national liberation in recorded history.
- Chanukkah celebrates the increase of light in the world and the important role of humans in that increase.
IV - Why Christian should encourage Jews to Celebrate Chanukkah:
- Without the events that Jews celebrate at Chanukkah, there would have been no Jews from which Christmas would later develop.
- Diversity is wonderful.
V - What to do with your Jewish children who want to celebrate Christmas:
- Move to Israel and show them what it is like to live in a society where the majority of people are Jews who celebrate Chanukkah publicly in a big way and the minority celebrates Christmas primarily privately.
- Be strong. You are the parent, they are the children.
- Sympathize with your child's predicament and acknowledge his or her feelings.
It is not easy being a minority within a majority culture.
There may occur other times in your life when you want to do something differently than the way the others do it. You should feel strong in your commitments.
A child does not need to be given everything he or she wants, just the permission to want it.
- Appreciate the beauty of Christmas on its own level; many Christians appreciate the beauty of various aspects of Jewish life, but don't copy them.
- Imagine yourselves as "ambassadors" from another culture.
- If you are part of an interfaith family, you can "enjoy" the celebration of your Christian family members.
- A side issue: What about decorating the house with lights?
When I was small and again, when our children were younger we decorated by making colorful chains and made other decorations - inside the house.
Here's the catch. One of the metaphors of Chanukkah is that it is the "Festival of Lights" and it does celebrate the increase of light in the world and we're supposed to put our Chanukkiah in the front window so that everyone should see the symbol of the miracle of Chanukkah... so why shouldn't we increase lights on the outside?
The trick is to do it in such a way that it is distinguishably Chanukkah related and not an attempt to do what all the neighbors do.
VI - What to do about Christmas in the public schools:
- Prepare in advance. You still may not have success.
In the words of Rabbi Amy Scheinerman:
Many music teachers just don't get it. Many cannot conceive of December without Christmas music, and are rarely sensitive to the feelings of minority children.... Some music teachers have claimed that Christmas music in December is "art" and not "religious celebration." To this I respond: "Then you should be perfectly happy moving this body of music to next April, at which time we can all appreciate its artistry far better; if you claim it is not celebratory, then there is no need to do it at this time of year." This helps them to see what they're doing more clearly.
- Your child doesn't want to sing/play in the "December Concert."
We have never prevented our children from participating in the concert. Nonetheless, they do so in protest. One has decided simply not to perform those songs that are Christmas oriented, the other spoke of staging a walkout (which never materialized).
If your child is secure in his/her own Jewish identity, I think that no irreparable harm is done.
- You should know that while (oddly enough) a Christmas tree in school is not, a creche scene is a clear violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution, the separation of Church and State.
- Snow related Winter decorations in school here in San Diego are ludicrous and should be discouraged. Thanksgiving is American, multicultural, appropriate, sufficiently winterish (and enough). If they want "winter" decorations have them do a unit on astronomy and the winter solstice!
Collected responses to this posting.
© MemHeh Productions Last updated: December 24, 1997.