Being Jewish at Christmas


It’s hard to imagine not loving something about the Christmas season, living as we do at this time in history. Whether it’s the music, the extra attention to lights and decorations, or the sappy heart-warming movies that pour out of Hollywood, there’s an infectious glittery nature to life as December winds towards the end of the year. And the same is true for those of us who are Jewish.

As the picture of me with my brother shows, I didn’t start out being Jewish. I was brought up in a family that attended the Presbyterian Church in my Ohio hometown. We went to that church in particular because its music program was so strong. My mom always felt that religion was better with meaningful music to carry the message.

So it’s not too surprising that my best childhood Christmas memories all involve music performances – recitals, concerts, either singing, on the violin, flute, or piano.  The rest of the holiday involved a household flurry of harried activity to get the tree up, presents wrapped, and food prepared.

And then there was the somewhat predictable exhausted collapse to carry us through to the New Year. One of us would get sick, the tree would brown then shed before it was taken down, and poor mom would take to her bed to recover from the stress of it all.

Now, however, I am Jewish. How I got here is material for a different post, but suffice it to say that I have been Jewish longer than I was Presbyterian, so Hanukkah is the festival that has created the most December memories for our family.

As with many Hanukkah-celebrating families, the shutdown of Christmas Day in America creates a sort of bonus day of rest and recreation with no baggage that goes along with generations of expectations to fulfill. We will gather at our place this year, order in Chinese food, and pour beverages to accompany the no-stress meal. Then we are planning to risk the wrath of North Korea by streaming the movie, “The Interview” onto our television via whatever service has the fewest slowdowns. We might make popcorn. Or not. I might pull out some of the bourbon cookies. Or not. 

Whatever we do, we will be enjoying the warmth of family and friends and that is what we wish for all of you – to gather together with family and friends to enjoy the infectious spirit of this season.

And in line with my mom’s belief that religion and music belong together, let me share with you the words that came through our rabbi in Minnesota –

Religion is like this beautiful music. Each religion is like a singer in God’s song to the world. Each religion has a part to sing, certain notes to play that fit into the big song that is the song of the universe. And the music we all make together sings about goodness and hope and courage, it sings about love and kindness and wisdom, and it sings about heaven and nature and God. This great song is more beautiful because all the religions of the world are singing different parts of it. The religions are like instruments in a symphony, like the singers in the chorus.”

From How Do You Spell God, by Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman