I just had a strange, brief moment of wondering whether my Jewish, atheist family ought to celebrate Christmas.
And it all started with the sentence, “Santa Claus brings magic to childhood.”
Recently in class, my undergraduate students were reminiscing about their childhood Christmases. They spoke about the magic and joy they experienced and how much they loved believing in Santa Claus. They said they pitied anyone who didn’t have that and that they didn’t think you could have a special childhood without Christmas.
“I didn’t celebrate Christmas when I was growing up,” I finally told them.
My students looked shocked (almost as shocked as young people usually do when I tell them my wife and I don’t own a TV). “No Christmas?” they gasped, as though I’d had a deprived childhood.
“No. My family is Jewish. Jews don’t celebrate Christmas.”
Some puzzlement followed. Surely Jews celebrate Christmas, right?
Here in the UK, I’ve discovered, it’s just assumed that everyone celebrates Christmas. Many British people don’t even think of Christmas as a Christian holiday, so they can’t see why people of a different religion, or no religion at all, wouldn’t enjoy what amounts to a feast gilded with presents.
Growing up in the US, I knew that most people celebrated Christmas, but they were Christian, even if only nominally so. And everyone seemed aware of diversity regarding holidays and celebrations. Our winter pageants in elementary school featured Christmas songs, but they also included references to other religious events; I remember singing “I have a little dreidel; I made it out of clay. And when it’s dry and ready, oh dreidel I shall play” while spinning a classmate dressed as a dreidel. In school, we learned about Kwanzaa and Diwali and other autumnal and wintry celebrations.
But in my 10 years in the UK, I’ve felt like knowledge of diversity here is some decades behind the US. A colleague actually chastised me for saying, “Happy holidays!” to my students, telling me, “In England, we ALL celebrate Christmas! Say ‘Merry Christmas!’”
I mostly ignored all this and continued on my merry anti-Christmas way, but now that we have a child, I’m pondering it again. Her nursery has a Christmas event, where we’re told the children will sing Christmas songs and eat mince pies. I mentioned to some of the staff that we don’t celebrate Christmas and that we’re Jewish, but they couldn’t understand what I meant or how that might affect our enjoyment of the Christmas party.
And when people keep asking me if I am experiencing anew all the “magic” of Christmas with our 2-year-old daughter, they seem offended and confused when I flatly say, “No.”
I began worrying that somehow we were making our girl miss out on some vital part of childhood, even though I didn’t have Christmas and I didn’t mind. I asked my wife, who grew up as a church-going Anglican, if we ought to actually do Christmas, and she appeared astonished. She reminded me that since Christmas is all around us, our daughter will learn about it in school and from her friends. That doesn’t mean we have to have it in our home, especially since we don’t have any relevant Christian beliefs. Not celebrating Christmas will be a useful learning experience for her. Plus, how do children feel when they learn their parents have lied to them about the existence of a mythical figure; if parents misrepresent the reality about one thing, how can you trust them about other things?
My students kept going on about the magic missing from childhood without Christmas and Santa. I said I thought there was magic all around us; the world is exciting and special enough without needing to pretend a bearded man delivers presents in the middle of the night. Since my daughter can find joy in a leaf or a bird, why not focus on the beauty and magic of nature?
We’re not Christian and we don’t celebrate Christmas. Our daughter won’t suffer or miss out because of this, even if she might get a lot of questions from her friends. Indeed, I think she’ll be more attuned to nature and to everyday pleasures because she won’t feel she needs an imaginary man in order to experience magic.