S. Lee Manning: It’s that time of the year. Houses decorated with lights. Christmas music everywhere. Santas in the mall. A little less omnipresent but still visible, menorahs and blue and white decorations.
As a non-observant Jew in America, my feelings about the season mirror my explanation about my religion: it’s complicated.
When I was a small child, my parents, first generation Americans and children of Russian Jews, didn’t want me to feel left out during the Christmas season as they had when young. We celebrated the secular Christmas. We hung stockings. We watched Miracle on 34th Street every year.
Presents magically appeared Christmas morning. I believed in Santa – and would listen trembling in my bedroom for the sound of his reindeer on the roof. We never had a Christmas tree, which I desperately wanted, but I was told that Jews don’t have Christmas trees. It didn’t make sense, but that was the rule. At that young age, I didn’t understand that Christmas was at its core a religious holiday for a religion that I didn’t practice or believe in. I remember turning off a television program advertised as a Christmas special because there was this a lady on a donkey and her husband, and the show didn't seem to have anything to do with Christmas. Christmas was magic and Santa and flying reindeer - until my older sister spilled the beans about Santa Claus the year I was eight, and that was it.
My father, who in his own childhood had been chased and taunted for being a Jew, later let me know how much he actually disliked the season for imposing a Christian holiday on everyone in the country. He was not a religious man, but he felt it important for Jews to retain their identity as a people. His feelings were compounded by the fact that while my parents, as American Jews, had not experienced the Holocaust, it occurred in their lifetimes, less than ten years before my birth. One uncle survived Auschwitz. Cousins disappeared into night and fog of the Eastern European killing fields. But despite all this, he and my mother still wanted me to have the experience of magic that Santa represents -until I no longer believed in Santa.
We switched to Hanukah. Back then, Hanukah acknowledgements were pretty much confined to the Jewish community. It was rare to see decorations except in Jewish homes or synagogues. For the eight days of the holiday, changing every year with the Jewish lunar calendar, we lit Hanukahcandles. We got gifts, but not in the abundance that Santa had brought them. It was lovely, but it wasn’t the same all encompassing celebration that Christmas had been.
But neither was my attitude the same. Once I realized that my religious beliefs, and I had them back then, were different from those of Christians, Christmas became unsettling. I still liked the Santa Claus on every corner, the music, the lights and the bells, but the fact that I liked them made for internal conflict. Christmas underlined that my religion was different – that I was different. Back in those days before Supreme Court rulings, the Christmas songs at school were to welcome the arrival of the baby Jesus to save the world, a belief not shared by Jews. I sang along, enjoying the lovely melodies, but feeling slightly uncomfortable, as if I were betraying the generations of Jews who had been persecuted for having different beliefs from the Christian majority.
That uncomfortable feeling of betrayal was underlined by the real meaning of the celebration of Hanukah. Most non-Jews know that Hanukah celebrates a day’s supply of oil lasting eight days. What they don’t always know is that the holiday is a celebration of a military victory against a conqueror that wanted to force Jews to forsake their religion.
And in my school, I was singing songs to the baby Jesus.
Fast forwarding twenty years: by the time I met my non-Jewish husband, I was pretty much a cultural Jew. I’d go to services on the rare occasion I was with my parents for the High Holy Days, and I’d go to Passover Seders to celebrate freedom. But I didn’t keep kosher or Shabbat. I believed that all religions had their truths, but I didn’t (and don’t) believe that any particular religion had a monopoly on what was good. I did believe, kind of still do, in an entity that would be closer to the Force than to the traditional God of Abraham and Isaac. Still, I was and am proud of my Jewish heritage.
So in our married life, we settled into a non-religious celebration of both our traditions, and this only intensified with the birth of our children. We lit candles for Hanukah; we had a Passover Seder, and we celebrated Christmas.
When they were children, my kids believed in Santa. I spent almost twenty years as Santa-mom, spending every spare moment from Thanksgiving to Christmas shopping and wrapping. We decorated a Christmas tree. We played Christmas music. Magic and family fun dominated. The discomfort I had a child largely dissipated – in part because our celebrations were a family affair and not a religious ceremony and in part because there was wide acknowledgement of a multi-cultural country. I liked that the holiday decorations in the mall included, even as a token, something for Hanukah. I liked displays on television that glorified multiple religious celebrations. Having fun at Christmas felt less like a betrayal when it became part of a multitude of holiday celebrations.
But lately things have gotten a little uncomfortable again. In the past year, there has been an increase in people who dislike having multiple cultures in the United States and who demand a white Christian country. There has been a noticeable rise in anti-Semitism attacks along with a rise in attacks on Muslims. While the two groups may not be the same, the increase in religious intolerance seems to accompany the increase in people who feel victimized by the words “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” It’s not only that they want to say Merry Christmas themselves. They want everyone else to say it. Cups at Starbucks should say Merry Christmas. Sales staff at Macy’s should say Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays, even if someone’s wearing a yarmulke or a hijab.
I can almost hear my adored late father raving.
And I kind of agree with him. It’s one thing for me to choose to celebrate Christmas, in my fashion, with my family. It’s another to have it forced on me – or on anyone.
Hence my complicated relationship with the holiday season continues. This year, my adult children, my husband, and I are gathering again to celebrate the holidays. We’ll have a Christmas tree. I’ll watch my favorite Christmas movies, Prancer, and The Santa Claus. We’ll sing some Christmas songs. And on Christmas Eve, we’ll light the first Hanukah candle and honor the victory over those who wanted to destroy the Jewish religion. It somehow seems appropriate this year that the two holidays fall together.