Matthew Green: A Very Jewish Christmas

BY MATTHEW GREEN

Published December 9, 2009

Each December, it seems that some of my acquaintances still struggle with wishing me well for the holidays. True to form, they get out the first syllable of “merry” before correcting themselves with a “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Holidays” upon remembering that I’m Jewish. That’s thoughtful, but not entirely necessary. Some Jews may resent what they see as a Christian tradition being pushed on them, but I think they’re just kind of missing the point. I am delighted when someone cheerily wishes me a “Merry Christmas,” and I don’t consider it an assault against my Jewishness.

At any rate, it’s fairly well established that Christmas is effectively a national holiday in this country. For Christian faithful, this can understandably be a point of frustration. To put it into terms I can comprehend more readily, if Jewish boys and girls suddenly forgot the meaning of the high holidays and associated them with revelry, sweets and material gain, no small number of bubbies would be up in arms about it. It’s worth pointing out that there’s still a lot of importance in the liturgical Christmas for many Christian Americans.

But whether it’s due to Frosty the Snowman or Ulysses S. Grant’s 1870 decision to make Dec. 25 a federal holiday, Americans from a variety of religious backgrounds are happy to hang stockings and decorate trees. Therefore, if one can accept that Christmas is increasingly becoming a secular holiday in the U.S., I would argue that it’s possibly the most Jewish of American holidays, or at least one in which Jews should feel comfortable taking some small part.

Aside from the fact that Christmas commemorates the birth of history’s most famous Jewish boy, Jews have been contributing to Yuletide tradition ever since 1840, when German-Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote the song that would become "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." It’s undeniable that from "White Christmas" to "Sleigh Ride" and scores of other favorites, the works of Jewish composers make up an enormous percentage of carols. And at that, some of the most iconic seasonal recordings have been by Jewish artists like Barbra Streisand, Mel Torme, Kenny G and Harry Connick, Jr.

Members of the Tribe have furthermore helped write, act, produce and direct innumerable Christmas films. And insofar as department stores have had a hand in developing the modern conception of Christmas, the historical connection between Jews and retail has, therefore, even further influenced the holiday.

It’s partly this understanding of how my people have helped to add magic to the Christmas tradition that has kept me at peace with the holiday's December dominance. Yet, taking a step back, what further fills me with warmth is the symbolic meaning behind any and all Jewish contributions to the American Christmas tradition. Only in America could countless members of a historically persecuted religious minority enrich the traditions of a holiday at least rooted in the religion of that group’s past oppressors.

As a Jew, it may intrigue me to find out that "Silver Bells" was composed by one of my own. But any pride I feel from hearing that fact comes mainly from the knowledge that I live in a society in which that sort of religious symbiosis is all around me. And it is with that pride that I have come to love the Christmas season.

I’m not saying that Jews should trade their menorahs for evergreens and ornaments or even assimilate in the smallest way into the mainstream. I, for one, will probably spend December 25th in a Chinese restaurant somewhere with my family. But I refuse to feel ashamed for my love of Christmastime, and I believe other American Jews should embrace the jolly spirit of the holiday as well. Christmas, so I’ve been told, is a time for peace, goodwill and togetherness, in addition to the requisite food and presents. And as far as I can tell, Jews love all of those things, too.

Matthew Green can be reached at greenmat@umich.edu.