I've always felt uncomfortable around Christmas time. It's not a religious thing. Well, maybe it is, though I've got nothing against Jesus or Christians in general. It's just that growing up as a Jew in a Christian world, I felt most estranged during this holiday period.
I think most Jews do—except for those who cave in (and there are a lot of those) and just pretend that Xmas is their holiday too. Some will even buy a tree, then jokingly call it a Chanukah bush. "It's for the kids," they'll say. And I get it; I really do. Nobody wants to feel left out, especially when there are gifts involved. But, by Dec. 26, we're all feeling more than a little freaked out; overjoyed to bring in the New Year and stop having to pretend to be jolly or enjoy shopping. Bah, humbug, as they say.
So, how do we Jews cope during this extended celebration that has nothing to do with us, except that we live in America? The most prevalent method, and one that I occasionally participate in, even as it leaves a bad taste, is to try to make Hanukkah into the Jewish Christmas—as in, the aforementioned stupid Chanukah bush.
Yes, we light the Menorah and chant the blessings, but let me make it clear for anyone who might be confused: Chanukah has not one thing to do with the birth of that kid in the manger. In fact, Chanukah (and varied spellings, all acceptable) is a rather minor Jewish holiday, that wouldn't be much celebrated at all if it didn't coincide (somewhat) with the date of Christmas. But always resourceful, we Jewish folks have tried to make it even better than the Gentile holiday, cause we get gifts every night for a whole week. Pretty cool, huh?
As a kid that worked for me, but then you go to school, and are reminded once again how different you really are. Forget lighting the Menorah, now the choir teacher is telling everyone that we are going to sing Christmas carols. Some of them are pleasant and funny ("Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph of the Red Nose Reindeer"), but some are straight-up religious and cringe-inducing if you are of the Hebrew persuasion—i.e., "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," whatever that means.
When I came home from 4th grade one winter day and told my mother that I was feeling funny having to sing about this Jesus guy, her advice to me was that I should silently mouth the words that made me uncomfortable. As in, "Oh night when Christ was born" became "Oh night when ____ was born." This worked for a while until Mrs. Whitman caught me out and asked in front of the whole class why I "choose to mock what it is sacred." I had no idea what she was talking about. I looked over at my friend Joe Cohen for support, but he just shrugged, wanting no part of this battle.
My wife Beverly (who grew up in a different part of the state) tells me that her mother recommended the same tactic regarding silent singing, so I'm guessing this is an agreed-upon method by the larger Jewish community, at least as it existed in the '50s. Maybe things have changed by now, though I suspect that is largely dependent on what part of the country you inhabit.
Mostly I have managed to repress my feelings of alienation. Though I have little recollection of it, my own children remind me that when they were young, we hung stockings from the mantelpiece on Christmas Eve and sent out cards with a picture of the whole family. A practice my birth family followed also, all of us dressed up and smiling for my dad's camera. Not a bad idea, even sort of a nice gesture, but surely not related to Chanukah. Who were we trying to fool?
So, OK, this is how we survive, by trying to blend in. It's what Jews have had to do for centuries. Unless you live in Israel, as a Jew, you are in a cultural and religious minority. One that is tolerated (especially here in the U.S.) but never truly a part of the larger whole. It's nothing worth complaining about. Who would we address our complaints to?
In fairness, I've in recent years noted the shift toward using the word "holiday" in place of Christmas, as in a "holiday party" or telling your neighbors "happy holidays." It's an inclusive gesture and one that's much appreciated by those of us who celebrate Chanukah or Kwanzaa or Mawlid an Nabi.
Still, when the Christmas season rolls around each year, I'm reminded of the differences. And maybe that's a good thing. It's taken me a long time to accept who I am—on many levels—but I've come to understand that only by embracing your own heritage and culture do you really feel whole. So, go ahead, shop your brains out, sing those carols, string those lights. I'll watch and even enjoy the displays, but when it comes to claiming Christmas as my own, I'll pass. And I won't pretend that Chanukah is the same thing. The Maccabees would understand.