How I Almost Became a Christmas Jew

I used to hate Christmas. It was the party everyone was invited to, except for me. But this year, something in my thinking changed.

Yael Miller
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Runners dressed as Santa Claus, including 'Jewish Santa' Seth Balaban, center, gather for the 11th annual Las Vegas Great Santa Run in downtown Las Vegas, Nevada, Dec. 5, 2015.
Runners dressed as Santa Claus, including 'Jewish Santa' Seth Balaban, center, gather for the 11th annual Las Vegas Great Santa Run in downtown Las Vegas, Nevada, Dec. 5, 2015.
Yael Miller

“But really, why don’t we celebrate Christmas this year?” I asked my husband, sending him momentarily into shock. Even our 9-month-old seemed to think my question was surprising: he pulled his bottle out of his mouth and gasped.

It was a weird question, coming for me. For years, I would spend the weeks following Thanksgiving railing that I hated Christmas – the music, the decorations, and the advertisements drive me crazy, I would say. 

People, every year, would ask me why I hate it, for who could hate a holiday that’s about giving gifts, beautiful decorations, and delicious food? To which, I would respond: “It’s like everyone’s having a party, and I’m not invited.”

“But you are invited!” they’d proclaim, and then explain how Christmas is really a secular holiday.

This concept used to drive me crazy. Christmas was Christian – it even had “Christ” in the name. It was a holiday that Christians or those of Christian background celebrated.

But then, a year or so ago, I heard from my sister-in-law that she started to see Christmas trees in Tel Aviv in storefront windows – a new, seemingly cool way for Israeli Jews to mimic American customs seen on TV and in movies. This threw me into a frenzied rant. How could Tel Aviv, the center of secular Jewish culture, even consider such a thing?! Didn’t they understand what Christmas was?

Then it got me thinking. If so many secular Americans celebrate Christmas as a national holiday, why couldn’t I as well? If a whopping 30 percent of Jewish people have a Christmas tree in their home, why couldn’t I?

Perhaps this came from a deep-down feeling of jealousy. Yes, I was jealous of Christmas. In contrast to so many Jewish holidays, which are, as the saying goes, all about “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat” – Christmas just seemed so fun. Oh with its beautiful lights, the lovely tree, and warm gatherings for family and friends. 

I became obsessed with the idea of celebrating Christmas. I researched tree decorations, the most efficient ways of making Christmas cookies, and the proper etiquette around inviting people to Christmas lunch.

My husband found this amusing, but disturbing. Why, after so many years of believing one thing, that Christmas was a Christian holiday, could I flip my perspective on its head?

"I haven't," I insisted. "I just want to celebrate the holiday like others; like the secular Americans who aren't really Christian but get to celebrate Christmas regardless."

If only it were so easy. After Googling where to get a tree, I just couldn’t bring myself to stepping out and buying one. An image in my mind interrupted my Christmas daydreaming: that of me, as a kid aged around eight or nine, sitting in our classroom while others decorated our school Christmas tree (in case you're wondering, this is illegal in the United States, but a lot of schools do it regardless). I explain to my teacher that not only do I not want to decorate the tree, because I am Jewish, but that for me, the tree decoration is something that only Christians should do. The other students then invite me to church, but the teacher gives me a look and leaves me alone.

And that image – of me standing up for myself and my religion – kept reminding me of the real reason I don't celebrate Christmas: it just isn't me. Celebrating the holiday, albeit beautiful, is, deep down, not a part of the Jewish values I grew up with.

So this year, we’ve lit the candles of the menorah, and we’re planning to grab Chinese food on Christmas, because, well, there’s no better way to celebrate December 25. Not when you're a Jew in America.

Yael Miller lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and child.

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