I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Old habits die hard. Especially if it’s the most culturally glorified, globally recognized, consumer intensified holiday of all. Yes, I am a nice Jewish girl, and yes I am talking about Christmas.
It didn’t start out this way. But by the time I was in second grade, Christmas took on a meaning of its own.
My first memory of realizing what Christmas was all about took place in my second grade classroom. I was the only Jewish girl in my school. Little did I know, when the subject of Christmas came up, that trouble was just seconds away. I was about to make the worst faux pas a Jewish girl can make: When asked, “What do Jews believe in anyway?” I told the truth, at least what I knew of it at the time.
“Being Jewish just means I don’t believe in Jesus, and I celebrate Hanukkah and not Christmas.”
If at 8 I had known what social suicide was, I would have known I had definitely just committed it. The kids made fun of me and said that not only was I so stupid as not to believe in Jesus, but I was also stupid because I didn’t “get to” celebrate Christmas. From that moment on, I wanted some of what they had. Not the Jesus thing, I knew that wasn’t for me. But all of a sudden I wanted the stuff that Christmas started to signify.
By the time I finished grad school and made my new address a Jerusalem one, I truly thought my obsession with the winter wonderland, snowflake-covered trees, the smell of pine, and the look of presents under a tree would have faded into oblivion like my dreams of someday strolling the isles of Target (we don’t have Target here, but that lament should be saved for another post).
As I am no longer in school and I don’t work the type of job that I write the date on my memos, December 25 always takes me by surprise. It is always the same sort of a-ha moment: I realize the date and the wanting starts right away.
So here I am in Jerusalem, and the same thing happens every year. It begins with a whisper, “December 25.” Then it gets louder, “You know what that means.” Then it starts to gnaw at me, “I want presents,” and then louder still, “I want presents!” Because somewhere along the way, I internalized that Christmas is about getting stuff. And even though I am not a “stuff” person, when it comes to Christmas, that gnawing inside of me just doesn’t want to be denied.. I have tried to share this feeling with my husband, but being born to a rabbinical family here in Jerusalem, he has no idea what I’m talking about.
So on December 25, I walk around Jerusalem and sing to my self and try not to say Merry… because 1) no one would get that I was being funny, let alone what I am talking about and 2) because, like I mentioned, I am a nice Jewish girl.
The funny thing is, here in Jerusalem, you would never know it’s Christmas. Not in most of the city at least.
For Jews, it’s a day like any other. There is no hooplah or fanfare. There are no banners or commercials on TV reminding you to go out and buy stuff. There are no sales on turkey (and definitely no ham) and no one is decked out in red or green or reindeer sweaters. Kids are not jumping up and down in the aisles of the stores. And there are no trees attached to car rooftops.
Every once in a while, you see a pretty Israeli woman walking through the open air market with a mini skirt and a Santa hat on, but for the most part, Christmas in Jerusalem is quiet. Uneventful. Basically, if you didn’t know what day it was, you could miss it altogether.
When I remember what it’s like to be Jewish in America in December (and November for that matter) I remember how Christmas is everywhere. I remember how hard it is for the Jewish kids, and that it must be even harder for their Jewish mothers to stand up and say, “Honey, that’s not what we believe in.” I think of how lucky I am, that at 8, even though I didn’t know exactly what Judaism was all about, I knew what I didn’t believe in.
And while I may joke about wanting presents on December 25, I still know deep inside that for me, there is only one way to mark December 25: with Chinese food and the knowledge that this isn’t my holiday, and it never was, and it never will be, and I’m fine with that.