Tuesday, December 23, 2008

I love Christmas

Growing up, Christmas was a weird time of year. Everyone was running around shopping and everything was decorated with Christmas decorations, but I of course didn't celebrate it. My parents didn't believe in giving channukah presents because that was 'too goyish', instead they gave us channukah 'gelt' (cash).

I felt like an outsider wherever I turned. Of course I didn't want it anyway; oh look at those people running around and worshiping at the alter of consumerism I told myself (Yes, I was anti-consumerism from a young age). It can't be that great. They don't even know what they're celebrating, they're just doing these stupid rituals that don't mean anything anymore. (Sour grapes much?)

My parents used to go on vacation over christmas, cause my dad had off from work. For 2 years in a row when I was in my late teens, my brother and I (a year younger than me) threw gigantic "Christmas for Jews" house parties, where 30-40 people came over and hung out and got drunk away from adult supervision. One year we almost got caught when my mom noticed some crushed chips on the floor that we had missed cleaning up. My brother said something like "Oh yeah mom, we had a gigantic party of 40 people here" in his sarcastic voice, and my mom was all "yeah right, like you have 40 friends" (come to think of it, my mom is not a very nice person).

When I obtained financial independence and moved permanently away from my parents house after college (when my dad could no longer force me to come home every shabbas by threatening to cut me off), for a few years some friends of mine would come crash by my place, and we would go get great chinese food and go to a movie. We did this entirely because of the stereotype of Jews eating chinese and watching movies on christmas.

Then I met B, and last year I celebrated my first Christmas. In a completely non-religious way. We went to his parents, I got to decorate my first tree, and I left all the Jesus-y ornaments off (although my future mom in law later went and put all of them on). B's mom, who is very religious catholic, goes to mass, but did not even bother inviting us. I probably would have gone just out of curiosity, since I've never been in a church before, let alone gone to any other religion's religious services. I'm like to see what goes on there, and how different it is from shul.

B's family has it's own christmas traditions. On christmas eve (so, tomorrow), they (we) have a dinner made up entirely out of their (our) favorite appetizers. Then they (we) all go sit around the tree and everyone takes turns opening one present at a time. His mom traditionally gives the kids (and now me) a calender and gift cards and one big present. Then on christmas day they (we) have a big turkey dinner.

I love it. I love getting presents, but I love giving them even more. My family isn't really a 'present' type of family; my parents gave us kids cash on their birthdays and chanukah, but never gifts per se. If I did ever get a gift, it was because I specifically requested something, so it was never a surprise. My friends were never really gift exchangers either.

But the whole gift exchange thing is so fun! For the past few days we've been shopping all over the place (2 malls and 2 other stores), getting gifts. We've been trying to figure out what specific people will like through subterfuge (usually by asking their spouse or parents), and based on what we know about them. It's like a giant scavenger hunt for the perfect gift. I love it so much I even mailed both my brothers gifts, making sure to write "happy chanukah!" on the one to my religious brother. We got christmas gifts for our cats (2 new scratching posts!) And one for B's sister's dog (an argyle dog sweater!). We're going to pick something up for our catsitter before we go back home this Saturday. I'm on a gift buying binge. I keep thinking of more friends I want to send gifts to. Next year I probably will.

Next year me and B are getting our own tree.

It still feels a bit weird to be celebrating christmas at all. Like, even though I celebrate it in a completely non-religious way, it feels as if I've joined another religion. I know that is partially because of socialization; my parents drilled into my head that christmas was something the christians do, even though people of many religions celebrate it. It's also partially because it's so ritualistic, even though the rituals are a conglomerate of several different winter solstice festivals, and most of the religions behind them have been dead for hundreds if not thousands of years.

But on the other hand, these festivals were created to stave off the depression that one gets from a long dark and cold winter when farmers didn't have much work to do. Christmas was something to look forward to. And you know what? I've had a pretty depressing and dreary fall semester. The past few months I've been working constantly. I too need something to look forward to. And having Christmas just makes this time of year that much better.

It's a guilty pleasure.


  1. >I know that is partially because of socialization; my parents drilled into my head that christmas was something the christians do, even though people of many religions celebrate it.

    Well, they're right :)

    Its like saying "my parents drilled into my head that chanukah is something jews do, even though people of many religions celebrate it."

  2. ok, but if you look at 1) how christmas is celebrated today and 2) the history of the holiday, it has about as much to do with Christianity as Halloween does.

  3. 1) Sure, in materialistic locations...and that still is not everyone. What about places in Europe like the vatican or places like Bethlehem?

    2) What the history of it is irrelevant. Whats relevent is what it means to the people now.

  4. I would love to celebrate Christmas (just once, okay?) I’m fascinated by the season. I don’t know if it’s the white snow, the red theme, the spirit of gift giving, or just the story-telling in the shadow of an ornamented tree next to the fireplace.
    Alas, His mom traditionally gives the kids (and now me) a calendar
    It is calendar with an A, as in Abandoning.
    I’m not a grammar cop, but certain misspellings, especially those prevalent among Hassidim, make me jump.
    Check out my post on this.

  5. We're heading for a barbecue at the beach (100 mile drive) tomorrow... as here in Australia it's the middle of summer. There'll be me and my Chinese wife and some Indian friends. We'll be taking bikes as well as planning on swimming. The whole Christmas thing is more laid back here I think.

  6. Once I was invited to a Christmas dinner when I was living in upstate NY...

  7. God forbid (or is it G-d?) AE wants to partake in a basically secular holiday that her soon-to-be husband enjoys participating in. God forbid she not cocoon herself to the Jewish bubble. All those that oppose this are Jews who wish to seclude themselves in an ethnocentric lifestyle and not participate in the larger American culture. I'm an atheist and I'm ethnically Jewish, but I absolutely love Christmas time simply b/c the ambiance is so wonderful. I don't believe AE should attend mass though, that's crossing the line.

    @ Holy Hyrax:

    (And this is in reference to previous discussions I've had with you)

    So I guess if it's not ok for AE to participate in Christmas (a holiday that has more to do with commercialism than a virgin birth), it's also not ok for your Christians to attend Passover seder (an almost entirely religious holiday), right?

  8. Guilty pleasures are always the best pleasures.
    Enjoy, AE. Enjoy.

  9. AE,

    I'm usually pretty supportive of you in my comments. I understand where you are coming from and feel that since you are obviously a much happier person without the version of religion your parents hung on you and that you love B, you have the right to that happiness and love.

    And I will even concede that it is OK for you to celebrate Christmas in a secular way while you are with a fiancee and his family who celebrate it. It would be rude and unsociable to place yourself apart from your future family.

    However, you, as someone who still feels some conflicted connection to Judiasm (else, why this blog), lauding the wonderful merits of Christmas seems wrong.

    What you're enjoying isn't the amazing feeling of Christmas, it's the amazing feeling of good cheer and family in a holiday season, something your family never had, obviously. But plenty of Jews DO have that for yamim tovim - unfortunately, your parents didn't give you that kind of relaxed & happy atmosphere.

    I think your other reason might be that you are trying to excise Judaism from your life, step by step, since Judaism represents not something beautiful and warm to you, but the disapproval and heavy-handedness of your parents.

    I would suggest you not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Celebrate Christmas with your new family, by all means, in a secular manner (as you would naturally do as an atheist), but also put up a menorah in your window, even an electric one. Like many Jews in America who celebrate a dual holiday season, Chanukah can be celebrated in a totally secular manner as well. Rather than rejecting Judaism entirely, take some of it back, and make it your own, in an entirely secular manner.

    Another benefit of doing that is that since you obviously desire some sort of relationship with your parents (again, otherwise, why this blog), and grandchildren might make such a relationship materialize, your folks will likely be warmer to grandchildren who have some concept that they are Jewish, even if it's a totally secular concept of it.

    I guess my reaction is somewhat visceral, since so many Jewish kids are so influenced by the culture around them and want to celebrate Christmas. In a home where Chanukah is celebrated with warmth & good cheer, that influence is lessened. But it's still painful for committed Jews to see Jewish kids & young adults thinking Christmas is "better".

    On a lighter note - you loved going to the mall just before Christmas???? Crazy crowds and insanity? Different strokes for different folks, I guess. Personally, I hate shopping. At any time of year.

    Anyway, happy and merry whatever you are celebrating!

  10. HH- I didn't mean that christmas is celebrated today as a materialistic holiday. I meant that most of the traditions that go along with christmas (at least in the U.S., but in most other places as well) have pretty much nothing to do with christianity. Decorating a tree? Putting up lights? Eating a big feast? exchanging gifts? The Yule log? santa claus? What do these things have to do with christianity?

    DYS- Me and B talked about how when we get married and have kids we might want to do some sort of hybrid chirstmas/channukah celebration. But then I started reading up more on channukah...did you know that the "maccabi rebellion" of channukah was basically a civil war between the religious and the secular jews, over which could choose the cohen gadol? The greek rulers took the side of the secular jews, and banned jewish holidays to try and help the secular jews win their aims. As a result, that year sukkot was not celebrated. Eventually the religious jews won, and they celebrated sukkot once they had done so- which is why channukah lasts 8 days (the original account has nothing about a miracle of lights, that myth came about several centuries later).

    Anyways, my point is, chanukah is a celebration of religious jews defeating secular jews. Why would I want to celebrate that? I'm on the losing side. :)

  11. DYS- also, at this point I do not want a relationship with my parents (although I did when I started this blog).

    This blog is more of a cathartic place where I can talk about my feelings about what I'm going through, because I have few people in my real life who can understand it, and because writing about it helps me to understand it. (also cause I've been keeping another blog for 7 years now, and that blog had been getting really depressing with all the stuff I now talk about in this blog). :)

  12. AE,

    In a comment above, you wrote:

    ok, but if you look at 1) how christmas is celebrated today and 2) the history of the holiday, it has about as much to do with Christianity as Halloween does.

    but when judging Chanukah, you judge it based on its origins.

    Also, to me, holidays don't just commemorate what happened way back when (or sometimes the myth of what happened) but they commemorate the commemoration - the generations of people stretching behind me who celebrated the holiday as well.

    In any case, what Chanukah means today, to most secular Jews, has nothing to do with the Chashmonaim or Greeks. It has to do with standing up, in a season surrounded by Christmas, and saying "hey, I'm proud of my ethnicity and won't act ashamed of it. I'm happy to be a Jew!" It's why Adam Sandler's silly & shallow Chanukah song is so popular - it's about Jewish ethnic identity, not religion. That's how most Jews in America celebrate Chanukah. If you can celebrate Christmas in a secular manner disconnected from origin myths, why not Chanukah?

  13. We've always celebrated Christmas, right? Problem is, none of us are Christian (aside from The Daver) so most of the rituals and stories are completely over my head. Always left me confused and feeling left out at this time of year.

    But hey, I love Christmas and I'm glad that you're enjoying it, too. It can be a lovely holiday to celebrate, no matter how or why you got there.

  14. Ok AE...fellow atheist...this year, since being with Peter who was born Jewish but not practicing (completely secular man) I am making a special holiday meal. Im attempting to make his mothers kugel, potato latkes and a nice Israeli pomegranate, almond and apple salad paired with (brace yourself) a nice spiral cut ham and a southern berry cobbler. I have a beautiful white faux christmas tree to which we decorated while listening to some wonderfully festive klezmer music. the only reason why I dont have a menorah in the window is I dont own one...but would love to. I am not religious but would love to attend a shul service because I would like to see what goes on in there. Going there would not make me Jewish nor is it anything "wrong". I like what DYS said to you in that dont throw the baby out with the bathwater. christmas and chanukah are both wonderful celebrations that can mix rather nicely and can be completely secular. Please join me this year in our dual celebrations and light a meorah for me! You can make it exactly what you want to make it...and it will be your own. It's a wonderful new tradition.

    Oh and Holy Hyrax: get a life. I grow tired of your judgemental self.

  15. Oh AE, I read this on another blog today (another Jewish girl who felt compelled to leave the fold) and thought of you instantly. It's a quote from The Buddha...

    “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” ~ Buddha

  16. Love your explanation for having a Winter Solstice holiday as something to look forward to and brighten up the otherwise dark and cold season (well at least for those of us living in places that have seasons). Making celebrating anything this time of year worthwhile whether is has its origins in religious traditions or not.
    Since Hannukah in my family did involve giving children gifts, I too enjoy buying the gifts for all the wonderful children in my life Jewish and non.
    Hope you have a wonderful Winter Soltice holiday however you choose to celebrate.

  17. I like TikunOlam's idea of calling it a Winter Solstice holiday as opposed to any of the religious names. It even has a pagan ring to it :)

  18. Ivy Leaguer

    Nothing in my comment was I judging her for celebrating her. I was merely stating a fact that her parents are correct. That's all.

  19. >I like TikunOlam's idea of calling it a Winter Solstice holiday as opposed to any of the religious names. It even has a pagan ring to it :)

    I just find it a bit interesting that atheists would latch onto an already existing holiday, benefit from it, and simply change the name :)

    Anyways, Feliz Navidad

  20. I don't think attending mass is crossing the line, I think it's fine if she's curious.

    I've attended a Sikh service before whilst researching different forms of religious worship, and it was an interesting experience, right down to where they took me to the kitchens to serve some vegetarian meals (interestingly, so that Jews, Muslims and Hindus alike could join in).

    I've been to a cathedral and was enthralled as the choir began to practice their singing, it was a nice experience. I wouldn't necessarily go back, certainly not to pray - in which case it would be completely boring for me.

    But, each to their own...

  21. AE--
    I love Christmas, too, and I've never even celebrated it. :) Merry Christmas! :D

  22. "'hey, I'm proud of my ethnicity and won't act ashamed of it. I'm happy to be a Jew!'"

    You're "proud" to be Jewish? Shouldn't you be proud of your OWN individuality, your OWN accomplishments, your OWN values, your OWN self-esteem, your OWN strength, your OWN life, your OWN friends, your OWN person? Why be "proud" of your genetic code?

    I'm happy because of who am I, not what collective I was arbitrarily born into. The existence of "pride" regarding one's hereditary has always struck me as completely irrational. Don't be ashamed, but why be "prideful"?

  23. "Why be "proud" of your genetic code?"

    I'm proud to be a Jew, because of the rich and diverse history and accomplishments of Jews. Whether we like it or not, we are connected to that history, not through shared genetics, but through a connection to the culture.

    That doesn't mean to say that I'm not proud of my own accompishments either.

  24. >You're "proud" to be Jewish? Shouldn't you be proud of your OWN individuality, your OWN accomplishments, your OWN values, your OWN self-esteem, your OWN strength, your OWN life, your OWN friends, your OWN person? Why be "proud" of your genetic code?

    The questions of the enlightened ones eh? Why does it seem to offend people in today's world that someone might be proud of their identity? Why is identity all of a sudden something to snear at? Where in that comment did they say they were not proud of their strengths and everything else you mentioned?

  25. "I'm proud to be a Jew, because of the rich and diverse history and accomplishments of Jews."

    So I guess you discovered both general and special relativity, you starred in Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer, and Billy Madison, you produced, co-wrote, and starred in Seinfeld, etc..??? How can you be proud of achievements that you have absolutely nothing to do with? I could care less that I share a very tenuous cultural and genetic connection w/ Alberty Eisntein. He's the supreme genius, not me.

    "Why does it seem to offend people in today's world that someone might be proud of their identity? Why is identity all of a sudden something to snear at?"

    The implicit assumption in the above statement is what I resent. You define "identity" as the culture or genetic community one is arbitrarily born into. That's not an individual's identity in my book. That's an ideal for the short-sighted collectivists. Rather, I believe identity is specific to an individual, what values they possess THEMSELVES. You, conversely, believe identity is defined by membership in a larger collective. I admire people who seek their own self-esteem and to be valuable based on their own merits, not the persons who find satisfaction in nepotistic ascensions, tribal affairs, or the accomplishments of relatives.

    This ethnocentric mentality should be discussed far more frequently on AE's blog, in fact. That tribal ideology is the main reason AE's parents will not even allow themselves to MEET B. Her parents are the epitome of the collectivist mind: refusing to appraise B on his individual value, instead defining him strictly as a "goy" and thus undesirable.

  26. Let me clarify my position further. I'll begin w/ a small personal anecdote. I believe the American culture is the epitome of human civilization. I believe it's the most successful realization of the European enlightenment. I would choose to live here over any other country in a heartbeat. However, I am not "proud" to be an American, not at all. I am LUCKY to be an American. I was not a persecuted Puritan who sought to found a nation free of religious demands. I was not a Founding Father who stressed the importance of individual liberty and the pursuit of the American dream. I had nothing to do with the founding of this great country.

    However, I am lucky and grateful to have been born in this country.

    Now, if you believe Jewish culture is superior to other cultures, you have every right to feel lucky you happen to have been born Jewish. I understand being grateful that you had such luck in the birth lottery. But "pride" is assuredly different than being "lucky". Feeling lucky is rational, pride is not.

  27. >That's not an individual's identity in my book.

    So what? Nobody said anything against individual identity, but there is nothign wrong with belonging to a group either. If you talk about the American experience, part of that is the many cultures that exist here and give over their culture over to the American melting pot. Without that initial pride and longing, there wouldn't be this melting pot. If multi culturalism is a good thing, that first a pride and love of ones identity not just as an idividual but as a group has to exist.

    Nothing you say is contradictory to what I say. Human beings are not just individuals, but, we also build communities and cultures and that leads to identies (GASP)

    >Feeling lucky is rational, pride is not.

    Totally meaningless. Human pride whether rational or not is still part of the human experience and who we are. You want to feel "lucky?" OK. I choose to have pride in my history, my culture and ALSO that I am an American. You might as well say love is not rational either and start making up a hocky reason behind it.

  28. Lets just agree, to disagree.

    Its all about values, and clearly our values differ.

    No need to fight over it.

  29. I got to decorate my first tree, and I left all the Jesus-y ornaments off (although my future mom in law later went and put all of them on).

    Were you angry at her for not respecting your choices?

  30. AE, Santa Claus has actually a lot to do with Christianity.

    As name implies, Santa Claus is corruption from Saint Nicholas (Greek Hagios Nikolaos). He was bishop of Myra (modern day Turkey) and he is known to have arranged the dowries of three poor girls to enable them marry honourably and not go on prostitution to live themselves. Giving the Christmas presents is commemorating St. Nicholas.

    Santa Claus is a Protestant tradition. In the Catholic countries it is the Three Wise Men of East who bring the Christmas presents, not Santa.

    The good news is that if someone claims Santa doesn't exist, he sure does. He is a historical character. The bad news is that he is very much dead. His grave is in Bari, Italy.

  31. webgirl- I was a little peeved that she felt the need to 'fix' what I did, but not enough to be "angry". It was her house and her tree after all.


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