Too much shopping, too much food, arguing with your family — Christmas is surely the quintessential Jewish festival? If it weren’t for that teeny matter of whatsisface slumbering away in a manger, we could definitely count this one as tailor-made for us, the Chosen People (or semi-Chosen in my case).
But, for me, the season of joy is more like the season of squabbling as The Husband and I flex our debating muscles for the Grand Final of the Annual Arguing Calendar: Should you celebrate Christmas if you’re Jewish?
We have had more arguments about this than just about anything else (and we take our arguing very seriously so it’s not as if it isn’t up against an awful lot of competition). Even in less quarrelsome Jewish households, Christmas seems to be the C-word that must only be whispered and spouses often disagree about the extent to which it should be enjoyed, tolerated, ignored, or actively shunned.
Despite its name, Christmas is fundamentally a pagan/secular/non-Christian feast. Much of the imagery and traditions — evergreens, cakes and puds packed with nuts and fruits, candles, tree-glorification — have deep roots in their pagan origins. Christmas falls when it does because, in order to get the Brits to accept Christianity, it was simply dumped on top of the existing festivals: the ancient English one of Yule, the Roman Saturnalia which culminated in the high point of Brumalia on 25th December, and of course the physical fact of the Winter Solstice. Ask any theologian and they will agree that yes, it’s pretty certain that Jesus was not even born on that date.
The Husband, despite generally priding himself on being a rational creature, with statistics at his fingertips (sometimes made up, I’m sure, but still they do give him an air of authority) isn’t swayed by any of this. He thumps his chest (literally, not exaggerating) and says, "I don’t care! Not having a tree and not sending Christmas cards are part of my identity as a Jew. It’s the same for me as not eating pork." Of course, this is very annoying because I can’t argue with it. I can say that my Jewish Dad loved having a real Christmas tree (which is true) and that my non-Jewish mum didn’t give a figgy pudding either way (also true), but you can’t tell another person that how he feels is wrong.
Still, despite the chest-thumping and the refusal to let a perfectly innocuous fir tree cross the mezuzah line, I notice that there are some Christmas traditions he really does like. Jury will please note the following:
Item A: Crackers. The Husband is really very sweetly fond of crackers as if he is seven years old. He always angles for expensive ones because he actually cares about the gifts inside; I don’t mind about the contents as long as the outsides complement the table settings.
Item B: Traditional meal. Even though having roast turkey is no more, nor less, Christian than having a tree, he would behave as if badly cheated if I tried to fob him off with egg and chips. Turkey it is, plus all the non-treif fol-de-rols: homemade cranberry sauce, enough roast potatoes to feed the whole of Greater Manchester, spiced red cabbage (a little nod to the heim), etc.
Item C: Mince pies. I always put a pastry Magen David on the top when I make mince pies, so The Husband can tell himself that they are a little bit Jewish. In fact, they descend from the medieval English custom of having pies for Easter and Christmas filled with ground meat, dried fruits and spices (then a rare treat as these last two were imported so very expensive) so are not actually Jewish in any way whatsoever.
But now I’ve unearthed the fact that, as recently as the late 19th century, the Saturnalian tradition of persecuting the Jewish community on Christmas Day was alive and well (though not in the UK, as far as I can tell). I’m torn between my love of all things Christmassy and my sense of fairness: Do I tell The Husband that his instinctive dislike of Christmas might in fact have sound historical roots after all? And if I do tell him, will we end up sad, treeless and giftless — just the three of us having beans on toast on the 25th as we’ll have avoided all Christmas shopping?
But, as descendants of diaspora Jews, maybe it’s a good thing for us to celebrate the most-loved festival of our host nation, given that the Jew-baiting has now been ditched? Or is that merely a way of ennobling what is really just a love of eating, drinking, and having presents? For my part, I love the delicious food, choosing gifts for the people I love, and spending time with family (The Husband’s family obviously; mine drive me crazy). What could be nicer than eating, talking, laughing and sharing with the people you love?
And I can’t be alone, or why else does the local glatt kosher butcher advertise kosher turkeys?
Joy to the world…and I wish you all a very happy thingummyjig.
Zelda Leon is half-Jewish by birth then did half a conversion course as an adult (half-measures in all things….) to affirm her Jewish status before a Rabbinical Board. She is a member of a Reform synagogue.