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The Christmas Quandary

I like the smell of burning wood, and the Snowflake lights, and the chill of the beginning of winter. I like hot cocoa, and eggnog, and any excuse to top things with whipped cream. But I have mixed feelings about Christmas, because I’m Jewish and it’s not my holiday. We didn’t talk much about Christmas in my Jewish Day School growing up, but every show I watched on TV at this time of year (and I watched a lot of TV) had a Christmas themed episode, and it was, as intended, enchanting.

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“I love whipped cream!”

If you look through a list of the creators of Christmas movies and Christmas music, you’ll find tons of Jewish names. It could be a coincidence, but I think it’s because, as outsiders, Jews were desperate to feel that sense of magic and belonging. The whole town comes together to celebrate, with food and drink and sparkling lights. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? The idea that some magical character will know exactly what I need, and provide it, is every child’s wish. As is the idea that being a good and kind person should pay off.

But then I’m reminded, by this or that song, that this is not my holiday. I do not sing songs about Jesus. I don’t believe in the virgin birth. I am not the target audience for movies about the crucifixion, or stories about how Jews add the blood of gentile children to their matzot at Passover (where did that idea even come from?). These stories remind me that there are large groups of people who think I have horns coming out of my head.

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“What?!”

And then I watch an ice skating show on TV, or hear someone singing Silent Night (or singing a Jewish prayer to the tune of Silent Night, at Friday night services at my synagogue), and I change my mind again. There’s something so peaceful and kind about the intentions behind Christmas: the generosity of reaching out to strangers who need help; families returning to each other; angels bringing miracles to people who need them.

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“Dear Santa, can I have more chicken?”

I’ve been watching all of the Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel again this year, because they soften the edges of a harsh world for a little while, with all of that love and magic and inevitable good fortune. But they also force me to see all of the holes in my life, where things and people are missing. I see a cozy family in front of the fire, or a bright shining star in the sky, and I think of my Butterfly, and how she embodied all of the sweetness and light the world could offer, and I miss her terribly. And I miss the good fortune that all of these two dimensional heroes and heroines on TV are experiencing, getting everything they’ve ever dreamed of. And it hurts.

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My Butterfly

 

And then it changes again, and I feel hopeful that some of that magic is still out there for me, and it will find me, no matter what my religion or culture or skin color or gender, when I’m ready. I’d really like to believe in that.

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

127 responses »

  1. Really enjoyed reading this post. Happy New Year.

    Reply
  2. I remember an Indonesian friend (a Muslim) telling me that his favorite song was “Christmas White” (sic). He like the hubbub of Christmas, the idea gift exchanges, the music but it wasn’t his holiday.

    An Indonesian religious leader in an article in the Jakarta Post noted how he’d attended a Christian school for part of his youth and how he loved Christian music. He noted how he felt somehow disloyal to his faith admitting that, yet, he noted, some of the most beautiful music is played and sung in churches. He concluded he could love the music but not be disloyal to his faith since Jesus is in the Quran, if not as a savior, but as a prophet.

    As a Presbyterian, I remember listening to a beautiful Baroque Requiem thinking I felt like an outsider, a voyeur, and how fortunate a Catholic friend of mine was to have that music a part of her religious tradition. I felt somehow left out yet somehow connected through the music.

    When I was a child, a Jewish boy (I dare say, the only Jewish child in my school!) was absent from school the day we celebrated our Christmas program. The teacher explained he was Jewish, a fact none of us truly understood. Was it infectious? I remember feeling sad because Tommy didn’t get to enjoy the Christmas treats we had as part of the celebration. He was back in school after the Christmas business, and we were happy to see him again!

    J.S. Bach, a Lutheran, wrote some Catholic sacred music. Coincidentally, his sacred music is given credit for many Japanese converting to the Christian faith.

    If there is any point to this – I am struggling to find it! – it must be something along the lines of we must celebrate our common humanity and appreciate the things that speak to that common humanity in all our endeavors.

    May you have a brilliant and happy new year!

    p.s. My kitty boys, Andy and Dougy, tell me to wish your beautiful pooch a happy new year, too! They (and I) especially like how your pup’s ears look on the first photo! Sooooo cute!

    Reply
  3. Love and kindness from the source of All That Is knows no bias. It Is there for you. But not “out there” and distant. It must first be found “in there” from the most important place of all-your own heart. Be good to you this year Rachel. Set an example so that others will follow your lead. Hugs!

    Reply
  4. My family didn’t celebrate Christmas growing up either and anything Christmas was absolutely taboo…. but these days I love Christmas movies and I also like Christmas decor… all the bright colors and what not. It’s not quite as evil as I was made to believe as a kid.

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  5. HI Rachel,
    I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that Butterfly had passed. I’m so sorry. We lost Bilbo in June and were shattered. I felt myself falling apart without him holding me together and ust being there with his loving, compassionate nature. He was always there for me. Lady’s nature is quite different. She’s much more upbeat and the most enthusiastic tail wagger I’ve ever met. However, I think Bilbo had this melancholgy side, which made him very empathetic. Zac seems to be a lot like him. Still getting to know Rosie but she’s very smart and likes to be the boss. It is no coincidence that I’ve found her sitting in my chair a few times. She definitely wants to rule the world, but she has stiff competition from my daughter on that front.
    I’d imagine being Jewish could feel quite isolating at Christmas and Easter. They a huge party is going on and you’re not invited. Yet, you’re not sure you want to go anyway and have your own party to go to. I experienced a touch of that when I went to family events in the Catholic church for my Dad’s side and I was Lutheran. Those divides have come down alot these days, but were clearly demarcated when I was a kid.
    I think it’s important for everyone to be able to find their own path on this. Some people can be very dogmatic and you’re either this or that, where there are some good universal values in Christmas.
    Anyway, I had a bit of a sleepless night coughing last night, so I’m off to bed for a nap.
    Best wishes,
    Rowena

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  6. Butterfly and The Red Man are having a delightful time laughing at our longing for them.
    At least, that’s what I’ve made up my mind to believe.

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  7. What a lovely post. I love Christmas as well and also spend far too much time watching Christmas films on Hallmark – it’s a reminder that Christmas is the season of goodwill to others. Let’s hope that whatever religion we are we never forget to be nice to each other.

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  8. I love your little dog “Butterfly” memories!

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  9. “Jews add the blood of gentile children to their matzot at Passover” What?! I’ve never heard that one!

    I grew up with a Catholic-ish background, but am not Christian. I find the omnipresence of Christmas nauseating! I like the lights and the food and, even the good wishes (why can’t we smile and be pleasant all the time?), but the carols and movies and tv shows… oh, barf! Just once, I would like to be overwhelmed by other beliefs!

    Sorry, am I being too grinchy?

    Reply
  10. I grew up Catholic and have been to quite a few other churches and never heard of the blood of gentile children thing, but this morning I was reading Psalm 137 and was taken aback by this line: Happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock (referencing Babylonian children). One of the fascinating things about Jesus is that he was Jewish (as was Paul). So I love all the connections back to the Jewish faith.

    So often Jesus pointed to the outsiders and expressed love or them so it makes sense to me that Christians should share Christmas cheer with everyone.

    Always fun reading your writing.

    Reply
  11. First of all, there’s a large element of Christmas which is not Christian, but older – an ancient midwinter festival of survival and rebirth. Early Christian missionaries were happy to adapt and endorse large chunks of preceding religions, especially the rituals and images, giving them a new Christian meaning sometimes quite appropriate to the old one (the Christian story is about rebirth, after all).

    Many Christians don’t believe in a virgin birth, either. The Gospels don’t make a great deal of it and Jesus is referred to by his Jewish lineage, which would be incorrect if he wasn’t descended from these people at all. As for the crucifixion, it was a Medieval gloss which made it a story of Jewish treachery rather than human fear and meanness plus Roman brutality. We know now that in the early years of Christianity it was widely seen as a movement within Judaism, albeit a different and perhaps dangerous one. That attitude became difficult as the number of Gentile recruits began to greatly outnumber the Jewish Christians, as the focus of Christianity shifted to Rome (long before it became the official Roman religion) and with the devastation of Israel after the last revolt.

    Ironically, the commercialisation of Christmas has reached a point where many Christians feel uncomfortable about the festival too.

    Reply

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