Jingle all the way – a Jew at Christmastime

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

Well, it is for those celebrating Christmas. And for everyone else, it’s not bad either.

Of course, it’s a most wonderful time for merchants.

When I was a kid, Christmas shopping and decorating started a little after Thanksgiving. As with elections and everything else these days, preparation is beginning earlier and earlier. Of course the stores really get into it after Turkey Day, but I have been seeing “Christmasy” stuff advertised on TV and other media for a couple months now.

What is this column about, you ask? Is it about the shopping?

Is it about the meshugah (crazy) day after Thanksgiving, called Black Friday, when traditionally, businesses finally start making a profit for the year – no longer being “in the red,” and when stores start their shopping season with huge sales so people can wait in line for hours, even days, so that when the doors to an enterprise open, shoppers can stampede in, grabbing what they can at crazy discounts, some patrons losing control to the point of attacking and yes, even killing competing shoppers?

By the way, there is actually a website called Black Friday Death Count.com. Click here. The first listed headline link reads, “San Antonio man helped a woman being beaten in a Walmart parking lot, shot dead.” Yikes. That was this year. Also this year, “Shopper opens fire, killing one, over Walmart parking spot in Reno, NV,“ and, “Black Friday kicks off with deadly shooting at New Jersey mall.” What the hell, people? Maybe the day should be called Black Friday for the lead up to the shoppers’ funerals. Sheesh.

Is the column about any other holiday shopping season day, like Small Business Saturday or Cyber Monday or Giving Tuesday (to charities, assuming there is any money left)?

And hey, what happened to the first Sunday after Thanksgiving? Why is there no something Sunday? How about Take a Breath Sunday? Or Reload Sunday? Will there be a something Wednesday or something Thursday in our futures? I bet there will be. How about Running on Fumes Wednesday and In the Poorhouse Thursday?

So, you are wondering, what’s the point of this piece? Please indulge me and read on.

I cannot speak for any other Jew, but every year at this time, I feel a little uncomfortable.

I felt more uneasy when I was growing up. Not only was this Jewish Day School attendee, child of religiously-observant Holocaust survivors, inundated with everything Christmas — the music, the advertising, the gift giving, the tons of toys my gentile friends got (and boy, was I jealous), but soon enough I was able to understand the holiday had a religious origin, of a religion not my own.

And a religion whose icon was killed by me. Yes, I was told that at a tender age. That made me a bit anxious to say the least. I didn’t understand it, and the neighborhood friend who told me what I had done wasn’t mad or anything like that. It was a matter-of-fact thing. I asked my parents about it but I don’t remember their reply. Being concerned and confused, I probably didn’t listen to their answer all that well.

My discomfort didn’t (and doesn’t) come from that. I can appreciate the origin of Christmas without my somehow being responsible for Good Friday.

Look, although I know many now feel Christmas, or at least the Christmas season, has lost much of its spirituality because of how the holiday has become commercialized, I have always recognized Christmas for what it really is, a religious day. And as a Jew, I never wanted to feel I was celebrating the birth of someone in whom I did not believe. Nothing personal or disrespectful here; I don’t expect or want non-Jews to adhere to my beliefs. Live and let live, you know.

I wondered growing up, how would I handle the holiday and its season as an adult? Christmas was such a big thing. So important, not just because of religion, but also because of history. And it was a national holiday too.

I learned to cope — and cope may be too harsh a word for how I felt — and how to react in later years, by witnessing how my parents addressed the holiday. My mother merrily (I know, I know) went about preparing gift baskets for some fellow co-workers, and my father helped with the packing. The lucky ones received some of my mother’s incredible baked goods, and a little bottle of Kedem wine that would accompany each bag of delicacies.

My mother loved music and musicals, and so, she also liked some Christmas songs, the non-religious ones. In December, the pop radio stations played Christmas tunes and we listened and we liked what we heard.

I still enjoy Jose Feliciano’s very catchy, “Feliz Navidad,” “White Christmas,” written by that good Jewish boy Irving Berlin and brilliantly sung by Bing Crosby, and some pop and rock artist songs, such as “Snoopy’s Christmas vs. The Red Baron” by The Royal Guardsmen.

My parents let my sisters and I watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, A Charlie Brown Christmas and other Christmas cartoons.

Our family watched the Christmas specials. We marveled at the singers and performers. Of course in those days, the truly great shared their talents. Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., Bing, and Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli and others. And yes, many pop and rock and roll acts were part of the variety. If Ed Sullivan had them, so did Bob Hope and others.

Now don’t freak out or worry or judge. We were plenty Orthodox – Kosher, Shabbat, Shul (the synagogue), and all that. And perhaps my parents would have acted differently today, and the rest of us too. But back then, being allowed to enjoy a non-Jewish holiday’s non-religious customs for a very brief time once a year without believing in the holiday was OK in my family and so, it made things less awkward. And it made all of us more knowledgeable and tolerant.

And you know what? We said Merry Christmas to people and didn’t think twice about it. No political correctness worries. It was part of being American. It is part of being American. We did not have a Christmas tree of course, and we didn’t want one or need one. And no Hanukkah bush either. And yes, I was asked about that many times.

(Halloween though was a different story. That one was a big no-no. And certainly, no trick or treating allowed. But what my parents didn’t know, my dentist guessed, and correctly. But Dr. Vine could be annoying. He would always ask me, his hands deep in my mouth, even when I was a little kid, if I was married. No, Doc, and still no.)

In college, and later as an adult in professional positions, I attended Christmas lunches and parties, and I didn’t sit in a corner looking at my watch to see when I had been there long enough to make an exit. I was myself. Perhaps at first, a small part of my participation was because I didn’t want anyone to think I was better, or worse, or different, because of my religion. I didn’t have horns. I just was. I just am.

So am I still a bit weirded out at this time of year? Yes, a little. It’s natural, Christmas not being my holiday. But I like it when people are in a good mood for whatever the reason, and I like the catchy tunes and the store discounts too. It’s part of being an American, and I love that. Now if people could just control themselves on Black Friday…

About the Author
Shia Altman who hails from Baltimore, MD, now lives in Los Angeles. His Jewish studies, aerospace, and business and marketing background includes a BA from the University of Maryland and an MBA from the University of Baltimore. When not dabbling in Internet Marketing, Shia tutors Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and Judaic and Biblical Studies to both young and old.
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