Being Better Jews This Christmas

When I was in 3rd grade, I lost my cool in choir class. It was sometime in December, and I decided that I didn’t want to sing the song our class was learning for the Christmas/Holiday season. Why? Because the song, to me, was “Christian”, and I’d had enough of being made to sing “Christian” music. The song was Jingle Bells.

I realized later that 1) Jingle Bells, while a horrible song and tied to Christmas, wasn’t explicitly Christian in any way and 2) as annoyed as I was to always be the Jew in a Christian environment, I would also be horribly uncomfortable with a majority non-Jewish choir singing Hebrew and Jewish songs. The first point was explained to me for 10 minutes after that choir class in 3rd grade, and the second point I learned when, in the name of equality, songs like Hatikvah were sung at concerts in my high school.

The Christmas season was always a clear way for us Jewish kids to know we were different. But as I grew up I got used to this, and would purposefully bring a Santa hat to school (though we weren’t allowed to wear hats) to wish everyone a very merry Christmas. With maybe ten Jews in my grade, what was I going to do, dress up as a Maccabee and declare a merry end to the Greek control of Judea?

The other reason I got used to the Christmas season was because, as a Russian speaking Jew, I had Noviy God, which both translates to, and is, the Russian New Year. Noviy God is a totally areligious and definitely a Soviet cultural phenomenon, where we have a New Years tree and a Santa-looking character named Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost). It’s a beautiful family and kid-oriented holiday with lots of great Soviet movies and animated films to entertain any age. So the vibe of Christmas was one I understood, even though I will forever hate Jingle Bells (the rest of Christmas music, mostly written by Jews anyway, is totally chill).

But even this still made me feel like an outsider. I knew that American Jews didn’t know about or understand Noviy God, seeing it as a religious assimilation of Russian speaking Jews into Christianity. When asked why I have a Christmas tree if I’m a Jew, after explaining Noviy God, I would still get “But it’s a Christmas tree!” from some. With Christians, I felt like a Jew, and with American Jews, I felt like an alien Soviet kid misplaced in time. That feeling never goes away.

Recently, there have been a surprising amount of Jewish articles that have gone on my Facebook feed, cautioning other Jews that there’s no need to be hostile or uncomfortable with Christmas. Sarah Tuttle-Singer, an editor and blogger at The Times of Israel, wrote a fascinating blog post reflecting on her journey in becoming comfortable with the holiday. One of the events she writes about was when she angrily berated the head of the attendance office of her high school over the Christmas tree that sat there, to the point of her having tears out of frustration. She then says “But I mellowed over the years — truly, I think my anger came from a deep insecurity in my strength as a proud member of the tribe. Straight up, I was overcompensating.”

I think this kind of overcompensating in easy offense is something many Jews do during the Christmas season. But today, more than ever, we have interfaith families and kids in our community celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah, and also stuck feeling like the “other” between the judgment of both Christians and Jews. They deserve better than that feeling, and for that to happen, the rest of us need to do some serious reflecting. Even as someone who celebrates Noviy God and has a New Years tree, I honestly still recoil at the idea of Jews having a Christmas tree and celebrating Christmas. But the way to welcome in those “othered” by us isn’t to pretend like all is fine and we accept everything with no restraint, but to face our real thoughts and conceptions to overcome them and become better people and Jews.

So this Holiday Season, let’s make our community brighter for everyone. Let’s settle our Jewish jumpiness at Christmas, relax our overcompensation of being a stranger in a strange land, and understand that we can be both proudly Jewish and not scared of a holiday that surrounds us, even if most of us don’t celebrate it. This is a dichotomy I learned to handle when I was a child dressing up my New Year’s tree right before lighting the Hanukkah candles. It’s a dichotomy we should learn as a community if we truly wish to be welcoming to all our members.