Put on yamulkah, it’s time to celebrate Christmas and Chanukah

I have to admit, as an Orthodox Jew, I love the Christmas period. I love the lights in the street, the reassuring reruns on the radio of lame Christmas hits, the crisp winter evenings ushering in the season of goodwill, the buzz of shoppers and the all-round good feeling that we will all soon be on holiday. And as an observant Jew, I don’t feel guilty about it. Others have come clean too, a while back, much to the annoyance of others, Rabbi Sacks confessed to his love of Christmas carols and my wife is full of glee at this time. “Ooh, can we go the Xmas fair at…” she says. “I just need to go to Brent Cross on the evening of the 21st, 22nd, 23rd of December, I shan’t be long.”

Christmas is a time when Orthodox Jews in England are acutely aware of their minority status. Not only are we tiny in number, but the only people for whom this festival has zero significance. A former colleague, who had never met a Jew before was incredulous. “What,” she said “Don’t you do anything on Christmas Day?” If anything, Christmas is greeted with suspicion. It’s traditional for Jews not to learn, to ward of the evil spirits, or some superstition like that.

But that festival is not the one people celebrate today. Long ago it was divorced from its religious meaning. The tree and Santa have nothing to do with Christianity. Like the Superbowl, Oscars or Wimbledon, Christmas is a seasonal joy, no more no less. Rabbis and educators want to tell us something different. They speak of the irony that Chanukah, whose key message is about the dangers of assimilation, is often celebrated via the “Chanukah Bush,” that the joint celebration of these festivals contributes to the end of Jewish identity in the Diaspora. But the only Jews I knew who celebrated Christmas, were on their way out anyway. Their celebration was a symptom, not a cause of their assimilation.

I am not in any way suggesting that Jews should do Christmas Day (Okay we do have a family get together and eat some turkey — but that’s only because like many other Jews we love food and seeing each other, so why not one more occasion). Nonetheless, there is something about Christmas that draws me in, and I would say it is this — the run up. Consider two familiar scenarios. It’s one or two days till Sukkot, you need to put your Sukkah up, you’re worried the s’chach won’t fit, you’re in the middle of an important business deal at work and you have to excuse yourself for an arbitrary two day absence, you’ve got 18 people for dinner and none of the kosher shops stock that vital ingredient for your chicken salad. Or the second, strolling joyfully through the Christmas market in Hyde Park. Which one would you prefer? Deep down, we Orthodox Jews know that the run up is the bit of the festival we’re willing to embrace. It’s the reason why, in irony of ironies, Brent Cross opens its doors late in the days before Christmas, but the majority of people you see at that time are Orthodox Jews enjoying some late night retail therapy. I bet it’s the same at shopping centres all around the Diaspora.

And that’s where my enjoyment of Christmas ends. As for the day itself, I couldn’t think of anything more stressful. Imagine a single occasion with people you see once a year. No wonder they fret and moan about preparing a meal for guests that we do every week without batting an eyelid. And what if there’s a falling out? Wait another year to make up. If you have in-laws, whom do you spend them with? Give me my Jewish festivals any day of the week, there’s one to spend with your family, your spouse’s family and even room for the exes.

I think it’s about time that as a community, we changed our long-held beliefs about this festival. Rather than see Christmas as a threat to Chanukah, we should acknowledge how well it complements it. This is the era of diversity when a commitment to ones faith and practices serves to strengthen the multicultural society we live in. When everyone else brings in mince pies, isn’t it nice to hand out doughnuts? Doesn’t our constant posting of Adam Sandler’s witty Chanukah song, reflect of our deep pride, our sense of otherness and the joy that we can provide another narrative as to why this is the season to be jolly.

A merry Xmas and a happy Chanukah to you all.

About the Author
Born in London, Ethan lived in Israel for a few years. He is an experienced social researcher in government and the charity sector, and has also advised Jewish organisation doing their own surveys.
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