My brother-in-law-to-be once asked me, early in our acquaintanceship, “What exactly do you Jews do on your Christmas?” I was at Christmas lunch with my then-boyfriend’s family. It was my first Christmas. I was thirty.
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My own family never celebrated Christmas. Non-practicing Jews in a small and very Christian American town, my parents deliberately sidestepped the whole business. Not for them the conciliatory lure of the Hanukkah bush or the secular stockings adopted by the one other Jewish family in our town. As a result, it was easy for me to say to this supercilious man (who I’ve since come to be very fond of), “We don’t do anything. There is no such thing as Jewish Christmas. It’s a contradiction in terms.”
After lunch, we gathered around the festooned tree and exchanged presents. It was a ritual my boyfriend’s family performed for many years, but for me it was a revelation. What stood out what was their keen pleasure, the delight they took in giving, the ways in which these gestures and small tokens (the scented soap, a book the recipient would never get around to reading, a scarf that would never be worn) bound them to one another, lifted their communal spirits. The sense of mutual pleasure was palpable. It really was a season of goodwill.
It was when I married this boyfriend and moved from New York to his native Britain that I began to participate in Christmas for real. And as I did so, I began feeling as though I should justify why. In the movie “The Big Chill,” Michael (played by Jeff Goldblum) claims that one of the most intrinsically human traits is the ability and need to justify, that not a day goes by in anyone's life without a justification.
My justification for celebrating Christmas was family, his family. Christmas was the only time of year we were all guaranteed to be available, the week we all made the effort to travel north to Scotland and be together. It took effort and it wasn’t cheap, but living in a new country, missing my own family and the world I knew, I was glad – grateful even – to be a part of this family, to be welcomed into a cosy circle at a cosy time of year. (I know I’ve been lucky on that level. My friend Martyn, also a Jew who married into a Christian family, still feels an outcast when it comes to Christmas. His method of coping is to commit small acts of rebellion. This year it was to show up at the in-laws on Christmas Eve with two bottles of Israeli wine.)
Gradually, though, I came to see and admire the holiday on another level: the level of a unique human endeavour.
You can liken it to a fireworks display: all that effort, all that planning, the setting up, the waiting, all of it toward a short, ephemeral burst of united, and uniting, happiness and wellbeing. It's a wonderful human activity, this bustle toward celebration. And my thinking, my justification, was, and remains, “Why should all this busy joy be hi-jacked by religion?”
Of course I know religion is what it's meant to be about: The birth of a Jew who changed the world. And of course I know Judaism prohibits Gentile customs that have their roots in Christianity.
I observe Passover. We light candles at Hanukkah. We gather to eat on Rosh Hashanah. These are rituals with meaning, but they are, ultimately, celebrations.
But I also love participating in this process of bringing light to the darkness of bleak midwinter, to paraphrase the old carol. It is to a great extent what Christmas is really about, its true pagan origins.
The truth is I want to embrace as many celebrations as possible, to graze at the smorgasbord of rituals that humans devise to beat back the darkness and to put a temporary, glittering halt to the terrifying march of time. My brother-in-law’s wife, and my co-conspirator at Christmas, calls me a Christmas slut. If you decode that, you see she’s right, because the ultimate justification for my celebrating Christmas is that I am greedy.
Michelle Shepherd-Barron, originally from New York, lives in Cambridge, England. She writes about the life of a modern-day immigrant in her blog What I Was Wearing.