Editor's Note: This article was originally published November 2012.
Tis’ the season to be jolly. Soon after Halloween, Christmas music begins to play and Santa Claus suddenly shows up at every shopping mall. As I look out my window, I see green and red lights decorating my neighbor’s home; the lights not only illuminate my quaint neighborhood in Huntington, N.Y., but my mood as well.
I admit it to myself: I love the Christmas atmosphere. Now let me set the record straight — it’s not the religious aspect that I love, but the joyful feeling that infects everyone this time of year. I mean, what’s better than watching “Home Alone” as you anxiously wait for your Pillsbury ready-made (and certified kosher), reindeer cookies to come out of the oven?
I am convinced that everyone smiles a little bit more during the holiday season. Christmas is a time when people are in their best spirits — families come together, people are charitable and spirituality is, once again, brought to life. It is the only time of year when complete strangers, with bright smiles on their faces, wish you “Happy Holidays.” During the weeks preceding Christmas there is an indescribable feeling that never fails to warm the coldhearted and uplift even the grumpiest of grinches.
I must admit that, as a Jew, I sometimes feel uncomfortable enjoying the Christmas season. Is it appropriate for me to bask in the warmth of the Christmas atmosphere? Where do I fit in as a Jew during this most wonderful time of the year?
For as long as Jews have been active citizens in secular societies, we have naturally taken part in American holiday traditions, many of which have their roots in Christian practices. For example, some Jews enjoy playing Christmas music in the house, while others look forward to putting up Christmas trees and drinking eggnog with family and friends.
Last year I saw the Rockettes for the first time with my mother and brothers. Even though the show was a bit silly, being in New York City during the Christmas season, walking past the windows in Macy’s and seeing the decked out Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center was an enchanting experience. I believe there is nothing wrong with Jews engaging in harmless festivities, however, it is important for us to remember from where we come.
In Chapter 29 of the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet-author writes a letter in the name of God to the Jewish exiles in Babylonia. In it, Jeremiah advises the people to, “build houses and settle down” (Jeremiah 29:5). He tells the people to pray for Babylonia, that if the kingdom prospers then they will prosper too. In other words, Jeremiah tells the people to become comfortable living in Babylonia since it is their new home. At the end of his letter, the prophet tells the people that after 70 years God will fulfill his promise and will return the Jews to the Land of Israel, as long as they always remember that God is supreme and do not submit themselves to false prophets.
This passage is as relevant today as it was in Jeremiah’s time. By participating in some aspects of non-Jewish practices such as Christmas, we run the risk of becoming too assimilated. In order to prevent this, we must acknowledge our Jewish identities and limit our participation accordingly. For example, it is OK to hang a wreath or stocking on your front door, but it is not OK to attend mass.
So where do I fit in as a Jew during this most wonderful time of the year? I fit in where I want to fit in. I know that I am strongly in touch with my Jewish identity, enough to know where to set my Christmas limits. I have been listening to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” on my iPod, but I will not actually “proclaim the holy birth” on Christmas Day.
This Christmas I will be warmed, literally, since I will be in St. Maarten with my entire family. In spite of the lack of snow and winter weather in the Caribbean, there is most definitely not a lack of Christmas spirit. In fact, people’s houses glisten with winter decorations even though most of them have never even seen snow!
On Christmas eve I usually attend a celebration in the hotel. Perhaps if I’m lucky, my brothers will watch “The Polar Express” with me, even though I never fail to cry every time I watch it. Guilty!
So during this holiday season, enjoy yourselves. Listen to Christmas music, marvel at the festive lights and rejoice in the holiday spirit. Just keep in mind the message of the prophet Jeremiah. While sipping your gingerbread latte, remember your ancestors and most important, remember that you are a Jew. Oh yeah, and watch out for that sneaky mistletoe!