Friday, December 17, 2004

Jews Have No Christmas Spirit

Chanukah ended Tuesday night (or was it Wednesday?). One of the nights we went to my sister's house to give the chilluns their presents and light the candles with everyone together. I will get back to this stream of thought as soon as I indulge in one of my now-expected digressions...

What non-Jewish people may not know is that Chanukah (as well as Hannukkah, Hanuka, channukkah, ad infinitum) is a very minor holiday among Jews. I mean, we like it, don't get me wrong. But it is nowhere near the same ballpark as a holiday celebrating the birth of your savior. Seriously. So while I personally appreciate people wishing me a Happy Chanukah because I appreciate people who don't assume everyone is Christian, I also don't want anybody to feel pressured to "include" me when it doesn't make sense to.

For instance, if you are having a Christmas Party, I am totally psyched to come. I LOVE Christmas parties. What I feel bad about is that now some hosts feel guilty for having a Christmas party and not a "holiday" party because they feel like it's rude to me to not acknowledge my holiday. Here's the thing about that: in the workplace, I feel incredibly uncomfortable with Christmas parties and gift exchanges because they basically force me to be the one person (or maybe a couple of us) who has to awkwardly say, "yeah, I'm not doing the gift exchange. No, it's no big deal. No seriously, it's cool. You guys go ahead." I am incredibly not comfortable pretending I celebrate Christmas so that I don't have to look like I'm the party pooper. For perspective, imagine if I came in to work on Rosh Hashanah and my Jewish boss handed out yarmulkes to every employee, you know, just to be festive. Go on--wear it! Everyone else is and you don't want to wreck the party, do you? How would the non-Jews feel? THAT is what a workplace "Christmas" party does to me. I get that tense feeling in my tummy, like okay, now I have to piss on their parade and not exchange Christmas Tree ornaments with each other (which is not something I have made up. An office right here in Washington DC where a good friend of mine works had a Christmas party this past week where everyone was to bring a Christmas ornament and exchange it. He took the day off rather than having to be the one guy at the party who didn't bring an ornament to exchange and therefore look like he wasn't a team player).

I worked at one office in Atlanta where my VP seriously, with a straight face, asked me why "Jews have no Christmas spirit" when I very politely and quietly demurred on wearing a Santa hat around the office Christmas tree. I wish I were making that up, but it happened as recently as the late 90s at a major company in a major city in America. I was dumbfounded and completely at a loss for where to even begin to help this lady out with an answer. When the other people around the table heard that and got uncomfortable, the whole thing devolved into one big awkward excruciating Larry David Curb Your Enthusiasm episode: someone chimed in about how Jews were wonderful, smart savvy people, and then another said how the Holocaust was a terrible thing, and isn't Seinfeld just the funniest show on TV, and another said she just loved bagels, and other said his sister married a Jewish guy and the whole family loves him....and I was just beside myself with desperation to be released from this Christmas "party" so I could stop being the crazy non-Christmas circus freak. My stomach still does flip-flops when I think back to that "party" and how I instantly became the awkward focus of conversation simply because I said, "no thanks" when I was handed a santa hat.

So I think that helps you to see why I dread Christmas parties at the office. However, office Holiday Parties I get behind and in some cases, help plan myself. Everybody needs a party, and there's no better time than around "the holidays" to blow off some steam. As long as there is no gift exchange and no "why aren't you wearing the santa hats we provided?" I am cool and ready to have a great time. The purpose of any party in the workplace should NEVER be to create division, to make some employees feel like they don't exist or that they are not "festive" or cooperative, or to foist personal beliefs on your workers. Unless I worked at Oral Roberts University, and then, well, I get what I deserve.

But back to personal parties. Personal parties are a completely different animal. You are my friend. You celebrate Christmas. You are sweet enough to invite me to your home to celebrate with you. I am THERE! With bells on! In fact, I am looking forward to Christmas Dinner at the home of a good friend's grandmother in Virginia. I love that my friends are sweet and generous enough to share the joy of their holiday with me. And maybe that is the difference between office parties and personal parties: the sharing of the joy. If my friend has a birthday party, I go to the party, celebrate with him, smile and laugh and enjoy seeing him enjoy his big day. My joy at his event doesn't make it MY birthday, and it doesn't make people all of a sudden demand that I blow out the candles too or that I accept presents too on pain of being a party pooper. It's simply a sharing of joy, as friends do. During Christmas at the office, this "fun" bandwagon emerges that everyone is expected to get on and avoid admitting that it is actually "enforced fun." And so anyone who doesn't toe the company line about getting on board is seen to be not participating. There is no sharing of joy. Simply time spent eating and drinking with people you aren't necessarily friends with, and whom you don't necessarily want to share your religious beliefs with anyway.

So, I guess what this boils down to, is that it's not that I as a Jew have no Christmas spirit. It's that I have Christmas spirit to the extent that it brings YOU joy on YOUR holiday, much like I get in the Birthday Spirit for your birthday. Ask me to pretend it's my holiday too, and you are just begging me to ban leavened food in the office during Passover in the spirit of you being a team player and celebrating my holiday with me. No pizza, no toast, no bagels, no nuttin'. Now wouldn't you rather just give that Santa hat to someone else? ;)


Anonymous said...

As a believing Christian, contrary to expectation, I would never attempt to encourage someone of another faith to embrace the trappings of my own. By pretending that Christmas should be celebrated by everyone, Christians are unwittingly leading to its minimization and secularization. A Christian religious holiday is still valid even if a few people do not celebrate it with you at the office. Much as a Jewish religious holiday is still valid even when many people do not celebrate it with you at the office. To try to make non-Christians embrace Christmas quite frankly denigrates the entire meaning behind Christmas. I fully support a Jewish or Muslim or Hindu person's right to not sing carols and exchange gifts; to mandate it through social pressure simply negates the true meaning of the holiday.

Miko said...

While I agree with the basic sentiment of the above, Christmas as a holiday is rooted in pre-Christian traditions. A small amount of research will uncover the story about Christianity's work to appropriate pre-Christian winter celebrations (evergreens, singing, candlelight, feasting) and give them a religious meaning (everlasting life, caroling, light of the world, saints' feast) where before their was none. Though the name comes from the milennium during which Catholicism dominated, the unbroken chain of this particular winter celebration reaches well back to thousands of years BC(E).

I'm not suggesting that there is anything wrong or suspect about bringing a new religious dimension to what is a much older solstice holiday; in fact, as a Christian, I think it's lovely that the themes of yule, solstice, and many other winter holidays from several cultures coincide beautifully with the Christian story of the holiday. But I also don't think that Christians can ever claim sole ownership of the holiday traditions of Christmastime. The traditions have older and more pervasive cultural meaning than Christianity alone offers, and it's quite possible for people to celebrate the holiday in a pagan way (as a renewal of the year's seasonal cycles and a representation of death and rebirth), a completely secular way (as a holiday of gift-giving, parties, and winter decorations), or in a Christian way (as a celebration of the story of the Christian savior's arrival in the world). Christmas is a complicated idea, and has been adapted by many groups of people over time to serve various ends, all important and meaningful.

For further information, see The Battle for Christmas, a well researched history of the holiday's development, particularly in America where its celebration was mostly illegal until the 1850s because it was primarily a 'secular' holiday here until then; and the Bible, in which there's no mention of Dec. 25th or even wintertime (shepherds normally abide in their fields in spring, not winter, when they are in the fold) and there are three different tellings of the story given, with different details.