It’s that time of year again. Tinsel and lights decorate houses, Starbucks smells of nutmeg and peppermint, and I have spent a lot of time having my all-time least favorite conversation: “Why don’t you celebrate Christmas?”
You would think that “Well, we’re Jewish” should be a good enough answer for people. But apparently, it isn’t. This constantly turns into a long, in depth conversation where I have to defend my right to not celebrate a mainstream Christian holiday.
And sometimes, the conversation takes a turn into the even more unpleasant.
I was talking to an American co-worker (henceforth referred to as CW), born and raised in a major city on the U.S. East Coast, who came to my home for my Chanukah party and knows my ethnic background, a person whom I thought was a good friend:
CW: What are you doing for Christmas?
Me: I don’t celebrate, actually.
CW: What? Why?
Me: Well, I’m not Christian!
CW: But it’s not a religious holiday.
Me: I mean, it kind of is. You know Christ Mass. Celebrating the birth of Jesus as Christ Messiah and Savior of the World.
CW: But it’s not really religious anymore. It’s just a secular holiday. Everyone celebrates it.
Me: Actually, that’s just because of the dominance of Christianity, specifically White Christian Culture as a forced-dominant culture in the globe. My people have chosen not to assimilate. When we try to assimilate, White Christians remind us that we aren’t allowed to assimilate, and that we are different and are unwanted. And when we try to retain our independent identity, we are the victims of hate crimes and anti-Semitism. I don’t celebrate Christmas because I don’t want to assimilate on the one and only day when White Christians feel it’s convenient for me to assimilate; and that I should just celebrate the birth of their savior, stop making waves, and just play along.
This should have been the end of it. But, no. This is where everything went downhill.
CW: Oh, come on! Now when have you experienced anti-Semitism? And no, I don’t mean hearing about it happening to other people. I mean you.
It’s rare to stun me into silence. I’m a talker (come on, I’m a New York Jew!) But this did. Finally, I collected myself.
Me: Um, how far back do you want me to start? How about in the second grade, waiting on the playground when Paul T. uninvited me to his birthday party because I was “going to hell for being a Christ-killing Jew?”
CW: Did that really happen?
Me: More than once. In a very liberal East Coast town. Or how about the constant bullying throughout high school, including and not limited to being told that I should go “worship Hitler” and having pennies thrown at me from 3rd story windows? And please remember, I’m not religiously Jewish, and I am pretty damn assimilated. I dressed slightly more covered than the other girls at school, but not by much.
Me: The swastikas spray painted on the synagogue where I went for after-school program? My brother getting sent by his music teacher to the principal’s office for politely refusing to sing “Christ the Savior is Born” even though he offered to just quietly sit the song out? I think I remember my brother getting beaten up by his schoolmates. Like, really violently. I know his best friend turned on him for being a “Christ Killer.” My dad had the shit beaten out of him every day going to school for being a Jew, but that’s not as recent of course. Please remember, there are parts of the U.S.A. where I am simply not welcome because I look like a Jew. Parts of my own state where it is simply too dangerous for me to exist.
CW: OK, that’s an exaggeration. No one is going to shoot you on sight!
Me: Shoot? Unlikely. Drag behind a gas station and beat to death, and what with me being a woman, possibly rape me if they don’t mind sticking it in a ‘dirty kike?’ Distinctly possible.
CW: Come on, that doesn’t happen?
Me: Really? Actually, it does. It’s why my sister-in-law won’t let my brother enter certain parts of her state. She’s worried for his safety because she grew up there and knows what happens.
CW: That’s all urban myths.
Me: So, the shooting in 2014 of the Jewish Community Center parking lot is an urban myth? Or the Holocaust Memorial Museum shooting, targeting the little Jewish school kids?
CW: Yeah, well… but about those parts of the state. That’s just urban myth, and people feel scared and paranoid and make it sound big. It’s not like you will be murdered for being a Jew there. I mean really, find me an article. I mean, have there even been more than a dozen cases in the past decade?
Me: Easy to find. They don’t label them as hate crimes, but it certainly isn’t a coincidence that the victims are Jews for these “random murders.”
CW: OK, let’s make a bet. I’ll bet you dinner at your favorite restaurant that you can’t find me articles about ten ca—
Me: You need to stop right there. Do you see how maybe, just fucking maybe, making a bet where you ask me to gamble on making a body count of my people who have been murdered could be offensive?
CW: I wasn’t trying to offend!
Me: And yet you succeeded. Can you not see how making a “fun bet” over dinner for me to find and name for you which of my people have been murdered in hate crimes would be a little bit offensive to me? OK, you know what. I’m going to walk out of this room before you have a chance to say anything else.
It immediately changed the dynamic between us. We worked together, so I pretended to be cordial, but how could I be friends with someone who took the deaths of my people in such a cavalier manner? Someone who couldn’t understand how horrible that is?
While this may be the worst conversation I’ve had about not celebrating Christmas, it’s far from the only one. I dread this time of year and the conversations it brings with it. I dread the knowledge that after 11 months of being considered different, dealing with subtle exclusions and “othering” comments about Jews running banks, media, and government, for one month I am expected and nearly compelled to participate in a sacred Christian holiday.
This comes from people who, the rest of the year, are convinced that they are not anti-Semitic, are open-minded towards other religions, and celebrate diversity. Tis is proof of the fact that, subconsciously, they are not.
Making people celebrate Christmas—at its root—is about the idea that the birth of Jesus as Christ the Savior is a universal fact. Even if you do not believe that Jesus is the messiah, you must acknowledge, accept, and celebrate that statement as universally true. To people from the Christo-normative perspective, this is so obvious that Christmas is not even a religious holiday at this point. It is a universally accepted part of the calendar year. It is as objectively true as new year falling on January 1 or February being 28 days long (or 29 in a leap year).
To fail to give your child Christmas presents or a Christmas tree is considered by many to be close to child abuse (I wish I were kidding, but I’ve actually gotten comments along this line.) Essentially, and subconsciously, this is because to Christo-normative society, while Christmas is a fact, our holidays are not.
Decorating and living in a sukkah with fruits and decorations and lights is not as worthy as a small pine tree in the living room.
Eight nights of gifts, latkes, jelly donuts and singing around a beautiful chanukiah are not as good as presents under the tree, cookies, and carols.
Children hunting for the afikomen and the special prize that Grandma and Grandpa will give them is not as valid as a stocking on the mantelpiece.
Dressing up in Purim costumes, stuffing ourselves with hamantaschen, and bringing baskets of food to the community is not as meaningful as Christmas sweaters and candy canes.
Our holidays, observances and, yes, our sufferings, are ignored year-round just so that we can be reminded that it is our duty to celebrate the birth of Jesus. If people wish to celebrate, that is their right in a free and open society. But it is also my right to say that I won’t.
Amalia Rubin, originally of Niskayuna, NY, is a researcher and private consultant based in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. She is an ardent feminist who believes that feminism includes the right to observe one’s own religion or culture as one sees fit. She is currently working on a book about the revival of Mongolia’s indigenous practices. Amalia sings Yiddish on Mongolian television and once converted a yurt into a sukkah.