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For Many, the "December Dilemma" Loses Its Sting

This article first appeared in the Forward and is reprinted with permission. Visit

Although she was raised a Jew, this year Lauren Silberman will be home for Christmas.

"Holidays are best for spending time with loved ones," said the 25-year-old photographer from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who plans to enjoy a special dinner with her family in Stamford, Conn. "It's not necessarily Christmas if you're Jewish, it's just a day that's called Christmas. It's a special day--it's a holiday, we don't have to go to work--and we should take advantage of it."  

Whether Ms. Silberman's statement warms your heart with holiday spirit or sends shivers running down your spine, hers is not an isolated sentiment. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a growing cadre of mostly non-observant Jews are finding ways to embrace aspects of the Christmas tradition--such as singing Christmas carols with the local choir, sending Christmas cards, or having a special dinner at home--without sacrificing a stitch of Jewish identity.

These Jews insist that it's all a part of being American in a multicultural society, whether its Barbra Streisand releasing her second Christmas album, or author Robert Rand recalling, in his book My Suburban Shtetl, how the Jews of Skokie, Ill., celebrated Christmas at a local school. As New York Times columnist Judith Shulevitz, a practicing Jew, wrote recently, "we have turned the American Christmas into an adoration less of a divine Christ than of the quasi-divine in us--our homes, children, families and communities."

And even for Jews who give the holiday a wide berth, the so-called December dilemma has lost its sting. Or, as Steven Bayme, director of Jewish Communal Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, recently put it: "Jews are by no means embracing Christmas, but they are probably made less anxious by it."

Although "Jews continue to object to the display of Christmas on public property," Mr. Bayme said, "my sense is, aside from the issue of church-state separation, Jews are less uncomfortable with Christmas because it's become so quintessentially American."

Although he does not celebrate Christmas, during the holiday, epidemiology graduate student Zackary Berger, 28, and his wife, Celeste, enjoy walking around Manhattan, taking in the elaborately decorated department store windows and enjoying the scent of pine trees in the air. "It's nice, it's wintery," he said. "I like the aesthetics. I guess I like it because it's easy to like the decorations and the outward stuff like that."

Such tolerance, said Mr. Bayme, is indicative of just how comfortable Jews are in American society. "Never before in history has a society been so accepting to Jews in general," he said. "Christmas doesn't threaten them that much because, by and large, America has been accepting to Jews."

And Christmas, as many Christian clergy are wont to complain, has a wide range of secular associations. "Let's get real here," said Egon Mayer, director of Jewish studies at the City University of New York. "It's not like people who are not Jewish are doing Christmas because they are pious. A lot of Americans who celebrate Christmas enthusiastically, they celebrate it as a social occasion, they celebrate it as a family occasion, they celebrate it as a gift-giving occasion."

Christmas, said Mr. Mayer, "is a holiday celebrated throughout the country, by people of all philosophical and theological persuasions because it has largely turned into a national holiday that lends itself to fairly liberal interpretations. It's hard to reinterpret Yom Kippur for other than what it is, but it's easy to reinterpret Christmas--it's already been reinterpreted by our light."

For Ms. Silberman, Christmas was "never about religion when I was growing up," she said. "We never talked about Jesus. We never even had a tree. It was about getting presents--and Santa Claus and snow and reindeer. It was part of the spirit."

Of course, for many observers, Jewish participation in Christmas traditions--despite what these revelers say--comes at a cost to Jewish identity. When people contend Christmas is a secular holiday, "They're missing the historical framework here," said Mr. Bayme. "Christmas is a holiday of another faith, rooted in historical events in which Jews reject their theological significance. We do have a real theological difficulty with this--we disagree on whether or not Jesus was the Messiah."

Although he understands that many Jews are led to believe Christmas is a strictly American holiday, "I acknowledge Christmas as a religious holiday and therefore I think it's hard to celebrate without a compromise to Jewish identity."

Historically, Jewish responses to the December dilemma have ranged from anguish to capitulation: This season, the San Francisco Architectural Heritage Society is offering Christmas tours of the Haas-Lilienthal House, built in 1886 by a Jewish family who, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, "embraced Christian traditions as American pastimes and immersed themselves in the Christmas spirit."

The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey found that while 54% of households with at least one Jewish resident never had a Christmas tree, 31% always do--a statistic that sent shock waves throughout the Jewish community. Still, cautions Mr. Mayer, "Does it mean that 31% of Jews celebrate Christmas? No, it does not. In point of fact, in probably a third of the households the person was really only of Jewish ancestry." He estimates that for people today who consider themselves Jewish but don't necessarily practice their religion, "figure under 10%" celebrate Christmas.

More typically, Jews fought back by elevating Hanukkah--a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar--in a sort of holiday arms race, and by pressing church-state litigation to quell Christmas displays on public property.

"The issue has been won in the public battleground: There's Hanukkah and there's Christmas. The American public is aware and accepting of Hanukkah," said novelist Anne Roiphe, who once celebrated Christmas as a Jew but does not any longer. Still, as Jewish identity has become more acceptable in the United States, this has also served to demystify Christmas for legions of Jews. No longer is it a holiday celebrated only by the "other"; rather, it's one often celebrated by spouses and extended family.

"Intermarried Jews, even if they have established a Jewish home and have raised their children as Jews, will often go to their in-laws' house for Christmas," said Gail Quets, research director at the Jewish Outreach Initiative. "In other words, they'll participate in the celebration of the holiday, even if it isn't their own. In some instances, if the non-Jewish spouse maintains a religion distinct from Judaism, kids will see it as 'helping' that parent celebrate his or her holiday."

A common occurrence, said Ms. Quets, is when parents of a non-Jewish spouse grow too old to host their annual Christmas dinner. The intermarried couple "will offer to host a Christmas dinner in their Jewish home," she said. "They don't see it as a dilution of their Judaism or religious commitment, but see it as obeying the commandment to honor one's parents."

What's interesting," she said, is that "one of the reasons we have no numbers is it doesn't come up as a problem. I think most Jews think it's perfectly acceptable to help their non-Jewish friends celebrate holidays, to drop-in and help celebrate their traditions."

During Christmastime, Ms. Quets herself likes to have special dinners with friends and enjoy their Christmas trees, although she does not celebrate the holiday. "It's a way of spreading good cheer," she said. "I don't feel it dilutes my commitment to Judaism. I know many other Jews feel the same way."

Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods.

Lisa Keys is a freelance writer.

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