It seem like every year at this time I get stuck in a rut; I get depressed, and the only subject that comes to mind when writing is how much I hate Christmas. In the past, I’ve taken it from a practical standpoint, as well as a bit of a contextual analysis. This year, I’m going to try approaching the topic from a different angle. I realized that each time I talk about Christmas I talk about the holiday and how it’s presented as this ubiquitous tradition. That leaves a gap between how other people see the holiday and how the season comes across to people like myself, who have their own traditions that are oft overlooked, marginalized, or outright ignored. I normally go on (or off, depending on how intense I get) about how Christmas is explicitly Christian. But this year I’m setting that sentiment aside and simply leaving it as “Christmas simply isn’t my holiday” which is objectively true and much less contentious. Instead, there’s one point that weighs on me that I have not put into words until now.
Whenever I have voiced issue with the pervasiveness of Christmas in the past, never once has the response been to allow me to be more Jewish.
Let me give an example to explain this reaction just a bit. Years ago a bunch of my friends and I saw a holiday1 stage show at Hershey Park. It ended with the cast coming forward and inviting people of all faiths to join them in celebrating Christmas. We all laughed at the wording of the sentiment, and it still comes up as an absurdity to this day. While well-intentioned, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Does it really make sense to say “Hey, Buddhists! Here’s some Christmas for you!” or “Hi, Jews! Come join us for a round of Away in a Manger or Joy to the World!” And yet…
This is the same sentiment I face constantly. From friends, co-workers, and even strangers whenever I point out that Christmas is not my holiday and a lot of Christmas celebration is not for me. It’s presented under the guise of “inclusivity” but it’s actually not truly inclusive. The message I am trying to get across when Christmas comes up is “I have a religion. I have a culture. I have my own festivals, and Christmas is not one of them.” What people, with the kindest intentions, reply is along the lines of “Well, in that case, we invite you to celebrate Christmas with us!” And while those intentions may be good, all it says to me is “We will let you do our religion, and our festival.” The problem is that it means I am only ever offered a way to exist inside of their space. I have never been offered a space of my own, because that would require carving it out of a social space they presume is already occupied by Christmas.
To put it another way, imagine walking into a dining hall and looking for a table for your group. All the tables are occupied to one degree or another by one large group. You ask if maybe they could consolidate a little and let you and your group have one table. Instead, they offer to shift down just a little and let each member of your group sit at various tables amongst them, splitting you up, and letting you into the conversations that they are already having. Your group has to sit uncomfortably among strangers and learn how to integrate into the discussions already happening. It’s alienating, anxiety-inducing, and destructive for your group, and a mild disturbance for theirs.
That is the response I get from the most well-intentioned people around Christmas. That is why every year I get depressed during this season. To be clear, I don’t mean bummed out or sad. I mean depressed, as in I dread getting out of bed and seeing people, because almost any interaction could turn into another example of the above. To make matters worse, it’s a season of mandatory joy. That means that if I try to push back and claim any space for myself I risk becoming labeled petulant or a grinch. I can’t attempt to dig into it, even with my closest gentile friends, because I’ll seem ungrateful and risk taking them out of the Christmas spirit.
That’s how I feel when dealing with people who have the best of intentions. This year alone I have also had people tell me that they had picked apart aspects of Hanukkah to integrate into their Christian religious services. At times it was passed off as “solidarity” after the Squirrel Hill murders. Sometimes it was just because they felt entitled to it as Lutherans, as Catholics, as Christians, or because they had Jewish friends.I had to fend off coworkers’ attempts to decorate our small Hanukkah display with Christmas lights. I had to face the fact that year after year, while I used to single-handedly decorate my workplace for Christmas2 and Hanukkah, on days when I’m off no one could be bothered to twist two light bulbs according to an illustrated calendar I update and print out annually. There was even an instance in a semi-professional group online involving Nazi symbols to help ring in the season, which I’d rather not get into.
All that is to say that under the best of circumstances, Christmas is a time when I simultaneously made to feel both very small and as if I’m taking up too much space in social situations. And dealing with people around Christmas is never limited to the best of circumstances. So do I actually hate Christmas? Truth be told, I couldn’t care less about it. But I have come to dread and hate my annual experience of it. I hate having my existence relegated to an afterthought. I hate how Hanukkah is constantly thought of as a Jewish Christmas3. I hate how what’s considered inclusivity and acceptance is really just allowing me to paint a veneer of Jewishness on existing Christmas celebrations. And I hate how all of this makes me so very tired on a fundamental level, which makes it that much harder for me to relax and enjoy my favorite season of winter.
If I can leave people with one bit of advice it’s this: During the Christmas season, when someone tells you that they believe something different or do something different, or simply enjoy something different, don’t immediately try to see how you’re the same, because all too often that just means trying to see your own predispositions in someone else. Instead, be open and honestly ask them about their differences. Instead of immediately trying to make them a part of your thing, see what their own thing is. Isn’t reaching out, rather than pulling in, what Scrooge learned to do in Dickens’ tale? To give a little of himself to others, to ask what others wanted and give them that, which brought them joy on their terms and not his? Isn’t that the real meaning of Christmas?