AT CHRISTMAS, we remember that millions of Americans follow faiths other than Christianity. Plus, in a new study, 1 in 5 Americans say they have no particular faith. So, what does this overwhelmingly Christian celebration look like from outside the immediate circle of Christianity? Earlier, we published Rabbi Bob Alper’s delightful Mrs. Steinberg’s Christmas Tree. Our new movie review and small-group discussion story about Les Misérables has both Christian and non-Christian ideas for discussing the movie. TODAY, we welcome writer Bobbie Lewis reflecting on her own Jewish journey through a lifetime of American Christmas culture …
Or, Bah, humbug?
By BOBBIE LEWIS
As a Jew, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Christmas my entire life.
I don’t think I was even aware of the holiday until I was in first grade. My family had just moved to a new neighborhood in northeast Philadelphia. It was a very Jewish neighborhood, but our house was on the last street of the district for an elementary school in the older, heavily German-American neighborhood of Burholme.
During my seven years at that school I was the only Jewish girl in my class (there were also two Jewish boys). We started every day with a reading from the Bible, and on assembly days, with a hymn. I loved the imagery and cadences of the King James Bible, and am grateful that I had the chance, in the days before the Supreme Court said it was a no-no, to become familiar with important passages from the New Testament.
My class was preparing to present a Nativity pageant during assembly. I was to be one of Mary’s attendants, and I came home and told my mother I needed a costume to be a “birgin.” (She made something appropriate out of a white sheet.) During the pageant, we sang Silent Night, and Away in a Manger, the first Christmas carols I learned.
As I got older, I became unsure about what to do about Christmas carols. I loved the tunes but for many years I would silently mouth the words whenever the lyrics said anything about “Jesus,” or “Christ.” Still later, I decided that singing these beautiful songs was a testimony to the composer, not a statement of belief, and sang along enthusiastically.
My parents lit Hanukkah candles every year, but gifts were never an important part of the holiday for us. My father’s coworkers sent us Christmas cards, and my mother used to tack them onto Dad’s large wooden drawing board in the shape of a Christmas tree. For a few years, she let my brother, sister and me tack stockings next to the card-tree, and we’d receive little chatchkes in the stockings on Christmas Day. But I think we all knew it was a hollow gesture—they weren’t even real Christmas stockings, just old socks, and the gifts were unimpressive—so the custom quickly died.
I admit I envied my friends’ annual haul of Christmas gifts. But I developed my own tradition of going to visit my best friend, Carol, on the day after Christmas to look at her tree and her gifts and to eat her mother’s Christmas cookies—the best I’ve ever enjoyed!
My ambivalent relationship with Christmas continued into adulthood. My first post-college job was with the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit, where non-Jewish holidays were ignored, so Christmas wasn’t an issue. Then I went to Sinai Hospital of Detroit. Although it was a Jewish-sponsored institution, most of the staff were not Jewish, and many wanted to decorate their work areas for Christmas. It became a huge controversy in the early 1980s. The administration finally decreed that Christmas trees and any religious-inspired decorations were out—evergreens and snowflakes were fine.
In subsequent jobs, I joined in the holiday festivities but I always felt niggling resentment that these supposedly secular organizations were giving so much attention to a Christian religious celebration; calling it a “holiday” dinner didn’t camouflage the real reason for the hoopla.
That changed 11 years ago when I went to work at Lutheran Social Services of Michigan. Because it was a Christian organization, I felt comfortable with the Christmas decorations, the Christmas parties, the “Secret Santa” gifts and enjoyed the holiday very much..
Now that I’m retired, I don’t have staff or colleagues for whom I need to buy Christmas gifts. Almost all of our friends are Jewish, so there’s no one to invite us a Christmas party. I don’t do a lot of shopping or watch a lot of TV, so I’m barely aware of Christmas in the malls or on the airwaves. For the first time in many years, I am doing nothing at all for Christmas.
And I admit, I sort of miss it.
For those of you who celebrate, I wish you the merriest of Christmases.
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Barbara (Bobbie) Lewis is the founder and creative talent behind Write4Results, a consultancy offering writing, editing, public relations and communications counsel.