I’ve been a proud Jew all of my life. Yet over the course of 2017, I’ve started practicing more and more aspects of my faith. I chalk this up entirely to my fiancée, Katie. Shortly after we got engaged in February, she started the process of converting to Judaism. I’ve been at her side as she’s learned what the holidays mean and how to read Hebrew, and it’s changed us.
We joined a synagogue and started going to weekly services as much as we can. We’ve taken two classes on Jewish traditions and theology this year; Katie frequently sends me messages with lists of Jewish books to read and movies to watch. We’ve started doing volunteer work in our synagogue, and begun a tradition of regular Shabbat dinners with a group of Jewish friends. When Katie formally converted in November, my mother — a daughter of Holocaust survivors — wept with pride.
There’s just one fly in the ointment, one giant elephant in our living room: the Christmas tree.
My Jewish journey, from grinch to a tree
Christmas is the biggest thing separating American Jews from mass American culture. It’s the biggest holiday of the year, made inescapable by decorations and seasonal music. It’s also inescapably Christian, as much as the holiday has commercialized and secularized over the years. The nativity scenes, “Joy to the World,” even Santa — we don’t have saints in Judaism — are all reminders to us Jews that we aren’t in the majority here.
So for many Jews, skipping Christmas — even hating it — is an essential part of our Judaism. That was me, up until now.
I spent my early years in a mostly Catholic neighborhood in suburban Maryland, one of roughly three Jewish families. When my paternal grandparents, who were Christian, would send us Christmas gifts, my mom would usually rewrap them in Hanukkah paper. Our annual Hanukkah party, to which all of our friends in the neighborhood were invited, was a marker that we weren’t being sucked in: that we were different, and proud of it.
This sense of Yuletide alienation stuck even after we moved into more cosmopolitan Washington, DC, when I was in high school — and well into adulthood. The anti-holiday called Jewish Christmas, the Chinese-food-and-a-movie ritual born of two immigrant communities’ alienation from Christian America, was a fixed date on my calendar. I cared more about Jewish Christmas, and all of the grinchiness it entails, than I did about most actual Jewish holidays.
There was no theological defense for this. It was bound up, in my head, with the idea of Jewish difference and survival.
My greatest fear for American Jewry isn’t that we become victims of another Holocaust; that seems wildly unlikely even despite the recent surge in anti-Semitism. It’s that we, slowly but surely, lose our identity as Jews — that being a Jewish American becomes less of a core part of one’s identity and more of a background fact, like being of Irish or Italian descent. Celebrating Christmas, it seemed to me, was one step toward the quiet oblivion of neutered Judaism. There needed to be lines, and this was one of them.
That all started to change when I met Katie in the fall of 2015. She was, and is, everything I could want in a partner. Religion, a deal breaker for so many couples, was barely an issue. Her family, lapsed Catholics and avowed atheists, didn’t have much in the way of religious tradition to pass on. She was more than fine with my insistence that our future kids be Jewish; she came to embrace the tradition herself.
Christmas, though, was a red line.
In her family, the holiday was entirely stripped of its Christian content — but it remained the most important time of the year. It’s one of the only times when she and all four of her sisters, who live back home in her native Canada, clear their schedules and get together at their dad’s house. It’s a time for family, for unwrapping presents and drinking eggnog in your pajamas.
It’s the part of the year Katie looks forward to most. She spends the entire time after Thanksgiving — which, because she’s Canadian, means late October onward — stringing up lights and wearing holiday sweaters. She and the other sisters will call each other on Skype, pull up a Hallmark movie, and push play at the exact same time so they can make fun of it together in real time despite geography.
There was no way I could ask her to give all of this up. It would be cruel and vaguely misogynistic, a man forcing his future wife to give up the celebration that brings her closest to her family because it’s not his custom.
When I spent Christmas with her family last year, I really started to get why it mattered so much. Seeing the happiness on her nephews’ faces when they opened presents on Christmas Day, feeling included and cared for when I opened the presents they had bought for me — it was an experience that couldn’t be replaced, a vital expression of love and togetherness.
I couldn’t be the one to kill that. For my new life to flourish, my inner grinch had to be put down. I had to reconcile myself to the fact that come December, there would be a Christmas tree and a menorah, candy canes next to Hanukkah gelt, stockings on the banister and latkes in the frying pan. Chrismukkah, as The OC’s Seth Cohen dubbed it, had become my new reality.
How I learned to stop worrying (as much) and love Christmas (sort of)
This is now the second year that Katie and I have been living together, and the second year we’ve had a Christmas tree. But this time, it feels different — more fraught, somehow.
She’s fully Jewish now; the idea of two Jews celebrating Christmas seems weirder than an interfaith couple doing the same. What’s more, we’re officially getting married, which means what we do now sets the tone for what we do for the rest of our lives. I felt a sense of urgency this year, a need to reconcile myself to the inevitable years of Christmas celebrating down the line.
So I did the first thing any good Jew would do under these circumstances: I looked at the data.
The most comprehensive research I could find was a 2013 Pew Research Center study, which surveyed 3,475 Jews across the United States. According to Pew’s sample, 35 percent of all American couples with at least one Jewish partner — nearly a third! — had a Christmas tree in their homes in the past year.
Yet there’s a huge divide between couples who are both Jewish, like we are now, and couples with only one Jewish partner. A scant 7 percent of couples where both partners were Jewish had Christmas trees; the figure was 71 percent, more than 10 times larger, for couples with only one Jewish partner.
What’s more, intermarriage seemed to be connected to the decline in Jewish identity that I and so many other Jews fear. Pew found that 96 percent of Jews married to other Jews were raising their kids to be “Jews by religion,” yet only 20 percent of Jews married to non-Jews were doing the same.
Disentangling correlation and causation here is not easy. Is a Christmas tree a symptom of intermarried couples’ lessened connection to Judaism, or does it actively alienate their kids from their tradition?
Am I quietly compromising on the thing that I cared about most — my children’s Judaism?
Putting the question in such stark terms is, in a way, very comforting. Because if the answer to that question is yes — that American Jewish identity is so weak that it can’t survive a tree — then we’re doomed no matter what.
For Christmas to be a problem for my family’s Judaism, it would have to swamp all of the things that we love about being Jewish. Not just latkes and twice-a-year synagogue attendance; I mean the sense of community, of history, of tradition, of family. We’ve spent the past year learning about everything Judaism has to offer, as a culture and a religion. I mean lighting the Shabbat candles, dancing at a Purim party, and volunteering in our synagogue’s effort to sponsor a refugee family’s resettlement in the United States.
If those things, which dominate our religious life 11 months out of 12, can be fatally undermined by participating in Katie’s secular Christmas, then our Judaism is much thinner than it has come to feel.
A thick identity, something that permeates and shapes the rest of one’s life, can’t be defined in purely oppositional terms. Judaism is not the absence of Christianity; it is its own powerful, vital thing. Surely a bit of secular Christmas cannot outweigh thousands of years of tradition.
This is what, as a Jew thick and thin, I have to believe.
How to have a Jewish Christmas
As the question of “can Jews survive Christmas” has become less vexing for me, another question has become more important: What does a Jewish Christmas look like?
During the process of reconciling myself to Christmas, I called up our rabbi — Aaron Miller of Washington Hebrew Congregation — for help sorting through my own feelings about Yuletide. Aaron, in true rabbinic form, declined to give me a simple answer.
“It’s a really complicated question,” he said. “I would be more nuanced with it.”
What Aaron meant by that is there isn’t just a simple binary, “do you do Christmas or don’t you” choice at work. There are all sorts of questions beyond the obvious ones, like whether you have a tree, that set the tone for how your Judaism and Christmas intersect. Do you host Christmas dinner, or do you go to a relative’s? Do listen to all kinds of Christmas music, or just the secular songs? Do you volunteer on Christmas day?
A healthy Jewish approach to Christmas, he suggested, lives in those gray areas. Judaism is a fact of our relationship, and so is Christmas. The trick is to make our Christmas as Jewish as it can be, to keep the family-oriented parts of the tradition that Katie loves while also insisting on some kind of reminders that we remain Jews even during Christmas.
There are plenty of ways to do this: serving Chinese food at Christmas dinner, say, or doing tzedakah (charity) on Christmas day. The point is less the specific action and more that it has some kind of obviously Jewish connection, something that gives Judaism a place in the Christmas proceedings.
“There are Jews I know who grew up Jewish — both their parents are Jewish, they married a Jew — and they had a Christmas tree in their house,” Aaron said.
In some ways, he pointed out, many Jews are already doing a version of the holiday. The very idea of Jewish anti-Christmas, going to eat Chinese food and see a movie, gives December 25 the same kind of family event status that real Christmas has for other Americans.
“So many Jews I know come together at Christmas and eat Chinese food,” he said. “Is it that if you have a spiral ham, then coming together for Christmas is verboten — but if you have kung pao chicken, which is definitely trayf, then it’s okay?”
There is, in the end, no escaping Christmas in an overwhelmingly Christian society. Jewish isolationism has already come around to a kind of Christmas-like celebration. Our new Jewish Christmas is less a surrender and more an admission of the obvious.
When you reframe the question — not do you mark Christmas as a Jew, but how do you do it — the worst anxieties produced by the holiday diminishes. Not every issue is resolved — I’ll never like Christmas music, no matter how much I’m forced to listen to it. But ultimately I can learn to live with Christmas, the way Jews have learned to live in so many different societies over the course of the years: by adapting.
So this year, when I was trimming the tree, it didn’t feel so alien. I added my personal touches — a big-headed porcelain Batman, Chewbacca and Rey from Star Wars, a felt chili pepper to represent my love for spicy food — and saw a bit of myself in the holiday. When I added the Star of David ornaments and tree topper, I saw more than just myself — I saw our happy Jewish future. And I felt a little more at peace.