Chanucah v Xmas: no contest

Part of my Jewish identity means I can be at ease with Christmas without having to join in

By Daniel Finkelstein, December 23, 2008

Slade were wrong. Yes: “Here it is, Merry Christmas”. But not everybody is having fun.

Every year at Christmas time, I have the same discussions with my colleagues. How can I be doing nothing — nothing — to celebrate the great day? They find it hard to believe that I do not mark the birth of Christ at all. Not even by putting a little pine tree in my lounge.

It doesn’t help, explaining that the birth of Christ was a distinctly mixed blessing for my people. Nor does it work when I say that I struggle with the concept of God, and find the plot of “God 2: The Son Returns” implausible.

They reply cheerfully that they don’t believe in Jesus either, but what’s that got to do with it?

Every Jew has his or her own answer to this question. After all, my colleagues do have a point, don’t they? What harm can come from a little tree? A present or two? A stocking? Watching Morecambe and Wise while eating Christmas pudding is not the same as crossing oneself at the altar while mouthing The Lord’s Prayer, now is it?

So why don’t I succumb to this logic? Why do I belong to the strictly no trees, no decoration, no stockings club? (For me, that is, not for you — that’s your business.).

The first is that Chanucah just seems in every way superior to Christmas. Latkes or Brussels sprouts? Candles or tinsel? Myrrh or the Maccabees? Eight nights or one day?

It is true that Christians are able to get their entire family around and everyone talks at the same time, and gives each other useless presents, and argues about things that don’t matter. But there’s nothing so special about that — we Jews do it almost every day.

And, true again, Chanucah is only a minor religious festival. But that just goes to show how good we Jews are at festivals — all this fuss and it’s only a minor occasion.

So Christmas v Chanucah? If it was a boxing match the ref would stop it in Round One.

That, however, is not my main argument, nor my main reason for abstinence. To explain my main reason I have to start with Boris Johnson.

The charity Crisis provides London’s City Hall with a tree at Christmas time each year. And this year, as usual, they were sent a letter setting out City Hall’s requirements. The difference is that this year, thanks to the blogger Iain Dale, the email they sent has become public.

Here it is: “Please find below our requirements as per previous years. We are looking for a Christmas tree from a sustainable source for the front lobby of City Hall, approx 15ft tall with decorations, bells, bows etc. Usual rules, no Christian symbols, colours or fairies! We cannot have any political colours for the decorations eg red, blue, green, yellow, so white and silver is best. Any decorations must be from a recycled, eco-friendly source. No star or fairy please.”

In other words, City Hall regarded it as routine that the Christmas tree have nothing to do with Christianity or, in fact, anything really to do with Christmas at all. They regarded that as the uncontroversial, non-political, bureaucratic solution.

When the new Mayor knew what was happening in his name, he decreed that, in future, trees at Christmas were allowed to be, well, Christmas trees with fairies and everything. In most public offices, however, the decision won’t go all the way to the chief executive. It will be made at a junior level, by a manager called Lionel Least-Resistance, who just wants a quiet life.

When I heard that story, I felt uncomfortable. I feared that the angels were being left off in order not to offend… well, me really. And I thought to myself — lovely thought, you’re most kind, I really appreciate it, but where on earth did you get that stupid idea from?

Far from being offended by the Christian nature of Christmas, I positively encourage it. I rather enjoy the Christian-ness of Christmas — the carols, the nativity scenes, the spirituality of Christmas sermons. Without it, I think Christmas would be a hollow, decadent affair. Have a Christmas tree, have a happy Christmas and don’t mind me.

Because as soon as I define what I think is special and worthwhile about Christmas, I can see that it is something that I cannot take part in. And I don’t mind that in the slightest. Because there is something rather nice, rather special, in not taking part.

As I was growing up I took part of my Jewish identity from the act of not doing something, from the act of looking at Christmas from the outside. It may not work for you. But it does for me.

Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times

Last updated: 11:19am, December 23 2008