I am not a practicing Jew, but I don’t celebrate Christmas either. My husband is a lapsed Christian and a loather of all things Yule. Late December has always been an uncomfortable time in our house. Until, that is, we decided four years ago to send our kids to a Jewish school.
It was a surprisingly easy decision, made for a host of sound reasons, exactly the ones you would expect to figure into a choice about the expanse of your children’s education. But it also solved the problem of Christmas for us and this has turned out to be one of its most wonderful virtues.
I spent the holiday season as a girl in small Jewish niche towns–Great Neck and Boca Raton–where the passing of Christmas was marked in its own ritualistic way, with Chinese food and a trip to the movies. So many happy memories. When I moved to the United Kingdom 14 years ago, however, Christmas became a dark and almost unbearable period, something to escape, not to indulge in. It triggered in me a strong desire to flee homeward and back to a place where there is still a life to be lived on the 25th of December that doesn’t involve a decorated pine tree.
In the UK, it is near impossible to opt out of Christmas in a way that is comprehensible to the neighbors. We are a country with an established religion and this makes us both culturally and constitutionally different from the United States. In America, diversity of religion is built into the national edifice, which has the effect of increasing awareness, even if imperfectly, that not everybody celebrates Christmas. Hanukkiyahs appear in shopping malls amidst the wreathes of holly; greeting cards can be purchased with vague well-wishes that don’t include the C-word. Not so on this side of the Atlantic.
Here, people rarely–and I mean rarely–acknowledge an alternative to welcoming Santa through the chimney with open arms, even those who are self-proclaimed atheists. From the beginning of November, Christmas rears its green and red head, boldly, ubiquitously, and without the faintest pretension that Britain is a multicultural society. The idea is that Christmas is a secular holiday, a festival simply for family and feasting and fun. It is all of those things, true enough, but it is also a marker of the birth of Christ and for some of us who live in these borders there is no way around this point of origin.
Especially when it comes to our kids. Because the fact of an established religion makes itself known in other, more reaching ways than a city shut down like a broken circuit on Christmas eve and Christmas day. Before we had children, it was my husband and I holing ourselves up in the flat, lamenting the disappearance of our friends and an outlet of anything to do. After we had kids, it became more problematic as our son returned from nursery one frosty evening singing sweetly of baby Jesus. The state schools have nativity plays and there is nothing secular about that.
Oliver was not a wiseman that year or a donkey or Joseph himself marching down the road to Bethlehem. We told his teachers he wasn’t Christian, but to let him participate if he was interested: we didn’t want him to feel isolated or side-lined, before he understood properly what it meant. The play came and went with little fanfare, none of us in attendance, but my husband and I felt that a line had been crossed. And that we were going to have to think carefully in the future about how to handle any similar situation.
What bothered me most was the assumption that a nativity play was OK for everyone in the class. It bothers me still. I stopped going to temple as soon as I left home, but since I have moved here the prevalence of this kind of assumption has begun to wipe away the cobwebs from my Jewish identity. It is a cliche, isn’t it, that minorities tend to re-embrace a lost faith when they are confronted with the stark reality of their otherness.
When it was time for Oliver to start school, we wanted to avoid the nativity play, but we also wanted to avoid what it represented: a system of built-in assumptions. We thought a Jewish school would provide the balance we were looking for. The school itself is not balanced, of course it’s not, it is impossible by its very nature for a religious school to be so. It teaches Ivrit (Hebrew) and limudei kodesh (Jewish studies), prayers are recited every morning, and the boys wear kippot. But the balance is struck against the all-pervasive culture of Christianity we live in and it gives our kids a taste of my heritage. Better still, it has allowed us to relax around Christmas a little, which doesn’t feel so threatening anymore.
Just a few weeks ago as we were making the 25-minute drive to school one morning–a journey we do in lieu of a five minute walk to the local primary–Oliver noticed an enormous sign hovering above the highway: “Glasgow Loves Christmas!” It should read “Glasgow Loves Hanukkah,” he said, with enough sarcasm to make me realize he was old enough now to understand the relationship between those two holidays in the wider world. And then my second son chimed in: “Actually, it should say ‘Glasgow Loves Leo’s Birthday,’” which was coming a few days later. His comment was tongue in cheek, too, but I thought it perfectly summed up my feelings about why we don’t acknowledge Christmas: in our house, the only birthdays we celebrate are our own.