Recently, on two very different occasions—a shivah call and a religious school parent activity—I overheard Jews discussing plans for their Christmas celebrations and shopping. I found this very revealing, since it was a sign that the December Dilemma is still relevant today, even among liberal Jews who care enough about Judaism and their community to perform two very important mitzvot: comforting mourners and giving their children a Jewish education. The term “December Dilemma” refers to the conundrum faced by Jews around Christmas time regarding whether they can or should fully enjoy and participate in the holiday activities taking place almost everywhere in North America.
Admittedly, the Christmas period is one of the most beautiful times of the year. It is natural to want to participate in the festive and meaningful family gatherings, beautiful decorations, gift giving, singing and general joy and goodwill. I would like to suggest that just as we join in a friend’s happiness and celebration at his or her birthday, we can enjoy the holiday without appropriating it. At the same time, we should remember that we are blessed with a tremendously rich tradition that provides us with so many opportunities for family celebrations, decorations, and exchange of gifts.
Chanukah almost always falls around the same time as Christmas. This Festival of Lights lasts for eight days and includes the simple yet beautiful and meaningful ritual of lighting a Chanukah menorah. The holiday can bring the family together, and has special foods, songs, decorations and even gift giving (although this is a relatively recent development). There are stories and history associated with the holiday that can inspire as well. However, we should not forget that Chanukah, despite its deep meaning and customs, is not even one of our major festivals, and that it might still pale in comparison the centrality Christmas holds in our neighbors’ religious calendar. Our tradition is packed with rich festivals, from Passover to Sukkot to the High Holidays and even Shabbat, to name a few.
The dilemma of celebrating Christmas or not has the potential to become more complicated in intermarried households, or in families where one of the spouses is a Jew-By-Choice and has Christian relatives. We cannot dismiss the central religious elements of the holiday of Christmas. Nobody can argue that the celebrations do not contain and promote universal messages that people of all faiths can and should relate to, but there is a big difference between being able to appreciate a holiday and celebrating it ourselves. Christmas remains a Christian holiday, and we should try to respect that fact.
A proper appreciation of our Jewish holidays can prevent us from feeling that as Jews we are deprived of Christmas fun. Pirkei Avot 4:1, asks us “Who is rich?” only to answer, “One who is happy with his lot.” This is not meant, of course, as a limitation on people’s ambitions and aspirations for improving themselves and their lives, but as a reminder that when we think we lack something, and that the only way to be happy is acquiring it, we only find ourselves in a vicious circle that brings stress and unhappiness, no matter our material possessions. We should feel happy and satisfied with the wealth that Judaism has bequeathed us. We are blessed with an immense wealth; nothing forbids us from enjoying our neighbors’ beautiful holiday, as long as we do not forget that it is not ours.
Yonatan Greenberg is a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow teaching at Kulanu, the Cincinnati Reform Jewish High School.