Friday, December 24, 2010


Generally speaking, I’m a pretty privileged American. I am white, I’m able-bodied, I have a good education, a professional career, all the things that get me an invitation to participate in mainstream American culture.

But then, once a year, that culture engages in a month-long ritual that I have absolutely no part in. It starts in late November, as the decorations appear, and the stores launch their special sales and promotions, and every commercial on TV tries to convince some other viewer that something not normally thought of as a gift (a power tool, gold coins, a lottery ticket, a donation to a charity) would in fact be just the right gift to bring a glow to his loved one’s heart.

This cultural phenomenon starts out subtle and easy to ignore. By mid-December, though, it is all anyone can talk about. It is on everyone’s mind: “Are you ready for it? Have you finished your shopping?” People bring desserts to their workplaces and have parties to celebrate its impending arrival.

And then this fervor builds to a climax, and the day arrives. Everything goes abruptly quiet. Streets are empty, stores are closed, an eerie silence reminiscent of Superbowl Sunday overtakes the city centers and shopping districts.

Then it’s all over, gone as enigmatically as it arrived, and I reacquaint myself with this culture that has seemed so alien and bizarre for the last month, my culture, once again.

Christmas isn’t even a religious holiday anymore
, numerous snotty high school acquaintances of mine used to inform me. Why don’t you Jews just give it up and celebrate it already? It’s the same question that gets asked of every minority whose minority status is based on a behavior: Why can’t lesbians just suck it up and marry a man? Why can’t left-handed people just use their right hand? Why can’t those Muslim women stop wearing that crazy veil?

From the outside, the question makes sense: why not celebrate Christmas? It’s fun, it’s festive, there are presents; what’s the downside? But people don’t just start celebrating holidays they have never celebrated before. Who would be the first member of my family to declare, This year, we’re getting a tree and buying a bunch of ornaments for it! This year we’re going to sing Christmas carols and putting up tinsel! This year, Santa’s coming for the first time!

My family has never done these things, and they don’t hold any meaning for me. The Jews I know who celebrate Christmas do so because they have Christians or former Christians in their families. I do know a few Jewish people whose families just love holidays and so decided to put up a tree or some decorations, but they’re a rarity. Religious Jewish people abstain from holidays celebrating Jesus on principle, but the rest of us view Christmas about like Kwanza or Ramadan, just with a lot more publicity: just fine, but not something that belongs to us.

When I was in high school, I worked at a Jewish gift and book store. When customers would ask us if we were open on Christmas, my boss would arch her eyebrows and say, “We call that day December 25th.” This was meant to answer their question: that day is not a holiday around here.

The message wasn’t always received: “So, are you open on December 25th?” people would ask.

“Unless it’s the Sabbath,” she would reply.

Although I worked at the Jewish bookstore, my family was not very religious. We didn’t go to synagogue when I was growing up. My parents sent my sister and me to a secular Jewish Sunday school at the Jewish Community Center, meant to enhance our sense of Jewish identity. There we learned about Jewish history, holidays, and ceremonies, but not about what we should believe or what God—or G-d, as my teachers called him—wanted us to do.

Before Sunday school, I didn’t always know what it meant to be Jewish, but I learned early what it meant to not be Christian. When I came home from preschool one day excited for Easter, which we had been informed was taking place that weekend, my parents had the grim duty of telling me that we did not celebrate that holiday.

“Why not?” I asked, disappointed at the thought of the candy and Easter eggs I would not be receiving as predicted by my teachers.

“Because we don’t believe in Jesus,” my father said.

Jesus. I had heard that word before. I was pretty sure it referred to something important.

“What if I do?” I asked.

“You don’t,” said my mother.

Not only did Jews inherently not believe in Jesus, but all the other characters associated with Christian holidays. I had to learn to remember that some kids were pretty sensitive about their delusions. In second grade, I got kicked hard in the leg by a third-grade boy because I said that Santa Claus didn’t exist. But he’s eight, I thought to myself, baffled that someone could be so naïve at such an advanced age.

Now that I’m old enough not to miss the presents and desserts, I still feel like I miss out on something because of Christmas. My teaching semester ends about two days before Christmas Eve. This has usually been a dreaded time of year for me. I have all the free time in the world, but all my friends are out of town or occupied with visiting family. I’m too tired to do something useful like clean my apartment or write the syllabi for my spring courses. It would be a great time to go shopping for some clothes…but no, it’s two days before Christmas, a horrible time to try to shop for anything. It’s dark, usually raining, horrible weather to go for a run or a hike. Whenever I get my annual jury duty summons, I defer it to December 23rd. If they want to hold a trial that day, I’m there; it’s the most useless time of the year.

This year, I had several invitations to Christmas parties. They were all with people I like a lot, and would have been fun enough, so I wondered why I didn’t feel like going. Then I realized: I have started to look forward to not doing anything on Christmas. Just like the Superbowl, it’s a rare chance to withdraw from the stream of our cultural calendar, to enjoy the meditative pleasure of disconnection and focus on ourselves. So maybe I do celebrate Christmas after all.


Dale Katherine Ireland said...

I feel as though you wrote this one just for me. Thanks for writing and posting this one, Karin.

Karin Spirn said...

And thank you for posting Chanukah candles every night so I didn't have to feel guilty when I was too sleepy to light my menorah!

Shelli said...

Just finished working, in residency and still now, it is widely known that if you're Jewish you're working the Christmas holiday...
at least I have nothing to rush to now, i can just sit around and do nothing, rather catch up on smythologies :) thanks for your stories Karin

Karin Spirn said...

Hi Shelli!

Do the Jews get to take all week off for Chanukah? Then it would be fair. I guess we're lucky there are so many Jewish doctors, otherwise we'd all be screwed if we get sick.

brain said...

My pre-marriage extended family is primarily Buddhist... but everyone celebrates Christmas. It's just "what you do." Obviously the holiday doesn't have much to do with Jesus. It's more about Santa. My tree always has Santa on the top.

I speculate "integration" is a strong Japanese value that may have led my family to adopt all the customs of their new homeland, a hundred years ago. I also speculate the Jewish identity is a lot about who you're NOT as well as who you ARE.

A couple of times when I've met children from Orthodox Jewish families, they've asked me, wide-eyed - "you aren't Christian, are you?" "no. I'm a Buddhist." They looked relieved. Odd, no? I didn't say I'm Jewish!

When I was growing up I definitely felt a part of this secret society - the stealth group of kids who were not Christian. Maybe this is why so many of my friends are Jews.

And maybe this is why all my friends are misfits! "Why be normal?"

Karin Spirn said...

Two things explain your experiences, Brain:

1.Darwinism: Until very recently, there wasn't a place where the norm was to be Jewish, so the Jews who assimilated just disappeared (as Jews). The only ones who still seem to be Jews are the ones who are all invested in not being Christian, because they are the ones who marry other Jews and raise their kids as Jews. There was no homeland to keep generating new Jews, so only the non-assimilators persisted.

2. Jews like Buddhists. That's why a about fifth of us ARE Buddhists.