The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
The Jewish Currents staff takes on Christmas.
Every year when December rolls around, the Jewish Currents staff discovers that we are internally divided on the issue of America’s merriest and brightest holiday. Echoing American Jewish debates that have persisted for decades, we’ve spent the last few Christmas seasons hashing out our feelings about yuletide festivities. This year, we decided to have the debate on the record. While choking down eggnog, we discussed our relationships to Christmas as children, the tensions between anti-assimilationism and cosmopolitanism, and the reasons to hate Santa Claus. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Nora Caplan-Bricker: Let’s begin with the million-dollar question: Is Christmas bad or good? And why? Let’s start with the pro-Christmas caucus.
Alex Kane: I like the sense that everything slows down and there’s nothing Jews have to do—no plans, no family obligations. You can just watch movies, eat good food, walk around outside, and have a nice day.
Nathan Goldman: I like that I get to experience the ambient jolliness of the season while also feeling alienated from it. I grew up in Kansas, where there are very few Jews, and I vividly remember being the only Jewish kid in my elementary school class when we were doing some Christmas-themed craft. There can be a bad side to the alienation, a loneliness, but there’s also a pleasure in the ability to step in and out of the Christmas cheer—feeling above it even as I reap the benefits.
NCB: I relate to that even though I identify as a member of the anti-Christmas caucus. I grew up in a relatively small town in western Massachusetts, and when I was little my mom and I would go look at the Christmas displays in the store windows on Main Street. One version of the Jewish experience of Christmas is looking in the window and being like, “It’s cute in there, people are having a nice time—but I’m okay with being out here where no one is asking anything of me.”
Ari Brostoff: That pleasure of looking at the lit-up store window from the outside, and wanting to enjoy looking without having to go inside—I think that’s an American idiom of diasporic Jewishness that’s actually about cosmopolitanism. I really appreciate that about Jewish Christmas, the movie-and-Chinese-food thing: It’s a way of elevating that structure of feeling into a ritual practice where you go engage in city life, you go to the cinema and eat food made by other diasporic people.
NCB: Once you actually get behind the lit-up window, though, it’s a consumer nightmare, and no matter how much money you spend, you never get what you want in return. My impression of Christmas—now that I actually celebrate it with my non-Jewish partner—is that the entire affective structure of the holiday is one of high expectations that are inevitably disappointed. It’s a day that promises to grant you access to the ideal version of your family—which of course is always out of reach. When I was on the outside of Christmas, I got to just enjoy the manic optimism that radiated off of other people in the lead-up. I didn’t have anything at stake.
NG: Like Nora, for more than a decade I’ve celebrated Christmas with my wife’s family; she’s converting to Judaism, but was raised Catholic. And even though I love it, recently—maybe because now we have children—I’ve started to experience a real sense of loss around foregoing Jewish Christmas.
AB: I do think there are ways of observing regular Christmas Jewishly, though I see how it’s different in the context of mandatory family time. My ex-boyfriend had a view I subsequently adopted, which is that as a Jew, you could not buy your own Christmas tree—but if you lived with non-Jews, you could encourage them to buy one, almost like a Shabbos goy. I love that because it takes the thing of looking at the shop window from the outside and brings it into the intimate sphere. And it also becomes the prerogative of the Jew or the non-Christian to unmoor Christmas from the family—to tell the Christmas celebrants in your life, “You’re allowed to have this whether or not you go home for the holidays.”
Mari Cohen: I don’t think I want a tree in my home, because I feel like the anti-Christmas position is foundational to my Jewish identity. As an assimilated Reform Jewish kid in a liberal community in Michigan, Christmas was the time when I most experienced myself as different, especially in elementary school. That was really the main thing that separated me from most of the other kids in my class—the rest of the time, my identity was not intrusive. I think I had a sense of martyrdom about it. I think it built character.
There’s a hilarious scene about this in the new season of Ramy, where Ramy is talking about his relationship with Jews as a Muslim, and he says, “We share this essential Christmas-less-ness.” And then, with complete earnestness, he tells a story about when he was in kindergarten: “Everyone’s talking about Santa, and I look over at this kid Ari, and I’m like, ‘Dude, we know the truth. We know this is just a capitalist fucking lie.’” Rejecting Christmas, in a way, feels like being in on some subversive secret. Christmas is a Marvel movie. It’s reality TV. It’s an airport novel. It feels satisfying to stand apart from it.
NG: Not celebrating Christmas cultivates snobbishness, basically. And as you’re saying, there’s an aspect of that aloofness that can just be smug and superior. But it can also be the basis of a critical posture toward the world. In the Ramy example, he’s literally describing an experience of seeing ideology play out in real time.
MC: I also worry about this skepticism, though, the way I worry about all my Jewish identity markers— that this rejection takes the place of some more positive vision of being a Jew in the US. I worry it’s the only thing that stands between me and just being an assimilated white Christian American.
Joshua Leifer: I don’t think that’s a negative at all. I think it’s a good thing. I am a hardline grinch: I hate Christmas. It’s a terrible time of year, not only because the weather is bad and it’s dark, but because people are trying to get you to buy things all the time. I think even Jewish Christmas takes it too far. By doing the movies and Chinese food, what are we doing? We’re still living according to the Christian calendar. We should not acknowledge Christmas. It should just be another day; we should go to work, we should pretend it’s not happening. I think in terms of carving out an autonomous Jewish way of being in the diaspora, we have to resist letting the Christians set the terms of our observance. We obviously live in their world, according to their laws—that’s an important part of diasporic being too—but not inside the house, you know?
MC: What is your take on Nittel Nacht, which involved Jews staying up late playing games and abstaining from Torah study on Christmas? There is this long custom of Jews modifying their own rituals in response to the dominant society celebrating Christmas on that day. That’s also part of the history of diaspora.
JL: Right, but part of the reason Nittel Nacht developed as a holiday is that Eastern European Jews stayed home on Christmas in case the goyim tried to commit a pogrom because they got too drunk in their celebrations. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about that most of the time, so I don’t know if this rationale for the custom still holds.
AB: Josh, what does it mean to carve out a space autonomous from Christianity without that space having some kind of positive content? Can you really derive a Jewish identity simply by ignoring Christmas?
JL: We live in a non-Jewish society, so everything we do is dialectically related to the opposition that we experience from the outside. In my mind, conspicuous consumption and Christmas are totally analogous—which means trying to maintain a distance from that culture of consumption and trying to maintain a distance from Christmas are one and the same. And so the same way I would want to insulate my life from the realm of materialism, I would want to insulate my life from Santa and carols and the way Christianity can enter into your house—
NG: By chimney, for example.
AB: One thing I’m hearing in all of this is that Christmas felt hegemonic in the places most of you grew up, which wasn’t really my experience as a kid in LA—I’m sure in part because I grew up around a ton of Jews, but also because Christmas is coded as a cold-weather holiday, so it always felt exotic to me. I love Christmas in New York. This is where I became attached to it as this gorgeous solstice holiday that ushers you into the bleak months. It’s all very Irving Berlin for me—“White Christmas” having famously been written by a Jew traveling out West.
AK: I think a lot of this is about a Jewish relationship to being American. I can’t believe I’m saying this—my 16-year-old anarchist self would be horrified—but I like Christmas the way I like a lot of stuff about America. I like baseball, I like hip hop, I like jazz, I like apple pie.
AB: Yeah, and in some countries it’s simply accepted that Christmas is part of the national culture for everyone. A British Jewish friend of mine grew up with a Christmas tree and Santa and the entire thing except for the nativity. Her family was totally non-observant, so that’s not so surprising on its own—but I was really struck by the fact that she said this kind of participation in Christmas was not limited to secular Jewish families. She grew up with kids whose families kept kosher but still celebrated Christmas, because it’s basically a civic holiday in the UK, even more so than in the US. She said Muslim kids would celebrate, too. Basically you would do Christmas unless you were religious enough that your family opted out of lots of aspects of national culture, the way religious Jews and some Christians opt out of Halloween in the US. Christmas is the default there, in other words—you opt out instead of opting in.
Aparna Gopalan: That feels right to me based on my very non-Jewish upbringing in India, where Christmas just means December. Especially having gone to Catholic school as a person from a Hindu family, those are just interchangeable terms for me. The teachers would go easy on you in school all month. And there would be a lot of community singing and other social activities, but without any conspicuous consumption or obligation to go to church, or any of the moral stuff that came with holidays within one’s own religion. We basically had Christmas without Christ—and without Christians, since maybe 5% of the kids at my school were actually Catholic. And it was really nice. But to attenuate the pro-Christmas stance a bit, all of this was happening in a context where everyone was made to say the Lord’s Prayer every day in a school where only like three kids were Christian. It was obviously a colonial hangover, but it was still great fun every December.
AB: At the same time, there’s a long history of Christian dissension from Christmas—the Puritans didn’t celebrate it, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t do Christmas. I actually associate the complaint about Christmas being too much of a consumer holiday with conservative Christian moralists like William J. Bennett or something.
MC: Before the turn of the 20th century, there were a lot more Protestants who didn’t celebrate Christmas, or who campaigned against it as heretical, “Popish,” and anti-Biblical. The flipside of that was that Christmas was often understood as secular. It was pretty common for Jews in the US to have a Christmas tree. Apparently Louis Brandeis had one; obviously it was the more assimilated Jewish immigrants—the early arrivals—who were doing that. A couple of factors may have prompted Jews to reject that custom. In a 1954 Commentary essay, English professor Melvin Landsberg argued that when Protestants began to adopt the holiday in the late 1800s, they shifted the perception of it in a more religious direction, which made it less appealing to Jews. The historian of American Judaism Jonathan Sarna has also argued that the growing popularity of Zionism in the US in the 20th century made Hanukkah more attractive as an alternative to Christmas, given the Maccabees’ association with Jewish nationalism. I guess that raises interesting questions about the relationship between anti-assimilationism and nationalism.
JL: I do wonder if the emergence of the Christian right after the 1960s led American Jews to retreat from Christmas—in other words, as Christmas became more religious, less plausibly civic, more Christ-full, celebrating Christmas became less appealing to Jews than it might otherwise have been had secularization proceeded in a more linear way. I think it’s important for understanding how Jews situate themselves as both part of and apart from white America.
The only time in my life when I’ve lived with someone who bought a Christmas tree was when I lived in Israel with a secular Israeli who was like, “What’s the problem? I see all these American TV shows where people celebrate Christmas, I want to celebrate it too.” It was like, here’s someone who has no sense of minoritarian identity, for whom the block to celebrating Christmas simply does not exist.
MC: Can we talk about Santa? I have this whole theory about how Santa gives us the ultimate parable of commodity fetishism. Gifts are no longer created materially in the world, but instead are brought down by this magical being from the sky, obscuring their origins. The thing that is most special about gift-giving, in my opinion, is that it emerges from real relationships between people, and Santa conceals that.
An archival letter to Santa by associate editor Mari Cohen.
NCB: I resent Santa for bringing out a terrible side of my personality. My family still jokes about how I ruined him for all the other kids when I was in daycare. The issue was that the Christian kids had convinced my younger brother to believe in Santa, too. I told him, “You’re not allowed to believe in Santa, we’re Jews,” and he was like, “Everyone believes in Santa.” I realized that I needed to go through the other kids to get to him. Many children cried that day. The daycare called my parents, it was a whole thing. All because I felt that I had to hold the line about Christmas or my brother would no longer be a Jew.
Looking back, I see this as connected to the way that my family’s version of cultural Judaism was rooted in a proudly liberal, secular rationalism. I felt justified in ruining Santa because I saw the other kids as inferior for believing in him, and I thought they deserved to have their inferiority revealed to them. I guess this comes back to the question of snobbishness that we were talking about earlier. As an adult, I feel so critical of the epistemic arrogance baked into the Jewish rationalism that I grew up with. I’m almost tempted to reject my rejection of Santa, or at least to reject the grounds on which I rejected him. I don’t think I’m joining the pro-Christmas caucus, but my anti-Christmas stance is evolving into an anti-anti-Christmas position as this conversation goes on.
NG: Hearing that story now, I’m actually with you as a child, Nora! Even in our supposedly pluralistic society, Jewish kids are still getting covertly indoctrinated with Christian dogma, except in this case instead of theology, it’s the creed of Santa. You were simply mounting a charge against that. At the same time, I live in fear of my own kids ruining Santa for their cousins.
Santa poses such a weird problem for parents who aren’t propagating the narrative because it still demands a kind of participation. What am I supposed to tell my children to keep them from spoiling it for others? I really don’t know how to talk to them about it—the only thing I’ve come up with is discussing it the way I imagine discussing God: “Some people believe in this, and some don’t, and here’s what I think”—except I don’t care whether they share my views about God and it would drive me insane if they believed in Santa.
I actually feel a sort of ambient pressure to do Santa, because there’s this pervasive idea that belief in him is paradigmatic of what makes childhood delightful. I really resist that, even though obviously I’m not opposed to kids playing make believe, or blurring the lines between reality and fiction; I don’t even identify as a rationalist, like Nora’s family. To me, there’s actually a literalism to Santa—the myth depends on a set of mechanical explanations about where the toys come from, how the guy gets from point A to point B, what he eats along the way—that doesn’t feel like it enchants the world at all.
JL: The nature of Jewish faith is just not structured around belief in such things. I mean, these are deep structural differences between Judaism and Christianity themselves—it’s not just Santa, the whole holiday of Christmas is about how God gets embodied and then is born. We don’t have the same relationship to the divine. For us the divine has no physical form. We also don’t believe that God can speak to us; the age of prophecy, of direct communication with the divine, which, say Moses could do, is long over. It’s a very Christian way of thinking about the world and the relationship to the supernatural.
NG: Santa feels like a kind of false mystery, which just functions to shield children from understanding how the world really is. I think of it as similar to making up stories to avoid teaching kids about death: “grandpa went on a trip,” “the dog is living on a farm.” In my mind, there’s a link between being straightforward about knowable reality—that death is real and Santa is bullshit—and cultivating a sense of the truly unknowable.
AB: I guess I’m just curious why it feels like it’s in the same epistemological category as lying about death rather than the category of like, creating a kind of theatrical suspension of disbelief? I’m thinking about one of my favorite days ever as a kid, when we walked into our first grade classroom on St. Patrick’s Day, and all the chairs and tables were overturned, everything was in chaos, and our teacher told us the leprechauns had done it. Over the course of the day we gradually pieced together that it was actually our teacher who had done it, and it was this incredible collective process of demystification. The whole thing, both the mystery and the solution, was so fun. I talked about it for months.
MC: I think it’s because of the actual content of the lie. The idea that some mythical being is judging your actions and bribing you to be “nice” is downright creepy. And then schools are making the myth compulsory by calling parents and saying, “Your kid can’t tell people that this isn’t real.”
AG: Something like that happened to a kid in my family as well. Over lunchtime in preschool, they casually dropped that the Easter bunny was someone wearing a costume, and the teachers called their parents and said, “You have to rein this kid in,” and my family was like, “It is someone wearing a costume, what do you want us to do?” But over time the kid’s position has evolved to be like, “I don’t believe in Santa, but I’m not going to be an activist about it.” And if the parents were to really insist that “Santa’s not going to bring stuff on your Christmas list,” there would be tears—not because the child believes in Santa, but because they’re like, “I don’t want so much dissonance when I’m with my friends, so let me be in their silly, fake world.” That makes me mad, because it really is about assimilation in such a direct way—where a kid who is not Christian and not into Christmas has to be silent about their disbelief to fit in. In a way it’s similar to what happened when they tried to change their pronouns at school to let people know not to use “she/her”—they’d go to school, it would be difficult and they’d stand out, and they’d decide to revert back, not because of an internal change but because it’s easier not to fight that fight with other people’s ingrained habits.
NCB: Last thoughts? I spiked my eggnog somewhere along the way, which was probably a mistake.
MC: I think it’s revealing that none of us gives a shit about Christmas trees on Starbucks cups or whatever. We know that Christmas carolers knocking on your door aren’t pogroms. Even those of us who are anti-Christmas are interested in the opportunity it creates to explore minority identities. We’re not asking for pandering from corporations in the form of “happy holidays” greetings. Overall, Christmas can be annoying, but it’s not dangerous—it’s just cheugy.