So Chanucah is over. The candles — shamash and all — have burnt down for the final time. The doughnuts have been consumed. The dreidels are packed away and the last of the wrapping paper has been consigned to the recycling bin. Now what?
Well, now, the Christmas season is upon us and the perennial dilemma starts. What should Jews do at Christmas? It is a minefield.
Jews can’t escape Christmas. It’s everywhere. From the adverts that start sometime in September to the jingle-jangle carols that are piped into every foyer, shopping-centre and lift across the land. From the huge boards that this year so charmingly scream that Westfield is Christmas (tell that to the church) to the Christmas lights that adorn the streets and give even Kilburn High Road a Dickensian charm. Yup, it’s unavoidable. Santa is a-coming and every child, including mine, wants to meet him.
Growing up, although well in touch with our Jewish identities and education, my friends and I were always secretly jealous of Christmas. It had a man in a red suit sneaking down a chimney leaving a sackful of presents at the foot of the bed; there was a reindeer with a red nose; a huge lunch; your favourite films; and sometimes even snow and a tree.
We never had a tree. Most of my friends never had a tree. We could always tell whose family was more assimilated, not from the lack of separate milk and meat cutlery drawers, or a biscuit-tin full of Kit Kats rather than Grodzinski’s finest, but by who had a tree.
It didn’t matter if they called it a Chanucah bush, or if it had a giant star of David on the top. If a family had a tree then they’d gone full Christian. Still, most families we knew did the lunch. Some even did a turkey (kosher) with trimmings. Most never had stockings. And we never were taken to see Santa. Never.
Every year, my mum would make a big announcement in October, normally at Shabbat dinner: “This Christmas I am working as a volunteer in the local hospital.”
Every year, we talked her back from the brink and persuaded her to do the big lunch with crackers, with the justification that “it’s a bank holiday, isn’t it, Mum. And it might as well be a Jewish Bank Holiday because it involves a lot of eating”.
Christmas becomes a prism through which Jews can view how they are living in the diaspora, how much their host nation has influenced them and how much they wish to partake in the national festivities, while keeping away from any Son-of-God debate.
In medieval times, Christmas Eve was viewed warily as a time of persecution. Nittel Nacht, as it became known, was a night where Jews were told to stay indoors, could not marry or partake in conjugal relations and studying the Torah was forbidden. Playing games was the only way to pass the time.
I’m glad things have moved on somewhat. We haven’t got a tree, but I will be cooking a Christmas turkey for 19 of my closest friends and family. Any excuse to have a day off with loved ones has to be embraced. HO, HO, HO!