When I was little, I wanted so badly to celebrate Christmas. I loved all the trappings of the season. Garland, lights, shiny things! I love shiny things! I wanted to know more about Santa and his sweet red outfit and sing carols and drink eggnog and have elves make me toys. But I’m Jewish. Now, I don’t claim to speak for my whole tribe, but in my house, it was menorah or bust, and we’re not even particularly religious. Though I show up for the occasional Bat and Bar Mitzvah, I haven’t attended temple regularly since I was 10 years old. Still, I identify as Jewish and I feel Jewish in an intangible, hard to explain way. It’s a part of who I am.
The first time I ever felt like a minority was in the 6th grade. A clique of girls decided they were all going to get Santa hats at the mall, write their names in glitter on the white fur, and wear them to school the day before winter break. I asked if I could join them. “No,” they said, “you’re Jewish.” I was devastated. No one had ever made me feel inferior up til then, which is pretty amazing if you think about it because I was chubby and bookish, awkward, and a girl to boot. So, I actually had a lot working against me as far as being out of the majority, but maybe my obtuseness protected me. But what could I say, I’m not that Jewish? I like a jaunty hat too? I want to be part of the fun with all of you? Kids aren’t known for their ability to stand up for themselves and rationalize with the unjust. It was just another reminder that this holiday wasn’t for me, no matter if all the TV shows had Christmas specials and everywhere I looked I could hear the music and see the glittering and magical finery. Instead, I could have 8 gifts, a candle to light every night, a gambling top with rules that I’m still unclear about, chocolate coins, and latkes and applesauce (which are delicious, by the way) but there would be no gingerbread house, no cookies to decorate or leave out, no stockings hung by the chimney with care, no hat squad for me. Sides had been chosen, and just like in PE, I was out.
Maybe I’m misremembering. Memory is a funny thing. Whenever I tell my Christmas story, meaning my feelings about Christmas and how they came to be, I mention that my dad wouldn’t let us have a tree. My sister and I would beg every year. We said it could be white with blue balls and it would really be a Hanukah bush but it was a non-starter. I tell this as a prelude to what came later. College, and making “Julie’s first Christmas” ornaments to hang on a tree in the dorm. Marrying a baptist as non-practicing as I am, who doesn’t attend church but allows me to turn our house into Santa’s little workshop every year because I love to decorate and I love festivity and I love to feel included in something I was excluded from for so many years. My son has grown up celebrating the fun parts of both holidays without any religious implications. We light a menorah and a Christmas tree in my home. Once, my son asked me what the best gift Santa ever brought me was and when I said he didn’t bring me gifts, his little face crumbled as he exclaimed, “Mom, you must have been BAD!” I replied, “No, baby, just Jewish.” These stories are squares on my quilted memories. But recently, an old friend mentioned that I did have a Hanukah bush. “Don’t you remember,” she asked, “your dad was so mad about it.” Did we wear him down then? I don’t remember having it. In my mind, it’s all wrapped up together, remembrances intertwined. No tree, no hat, no joining in any reindeer games. Does it matter if I am wrong on this point? Does it change my insatiable hunger to join in on the holiday season? Or is it just an irrelevant detail, an interesting aside. Sort of like how I love the look of a simple wreath and a candle in every window, but I can’t be contained when it’s time to decorate. Every year, it’s like I explode with tinsel (metaphorically, of course; tinsel is too messy. It’s the glitter of Christmas decorations; you’ll still be pulling it out of your hair in April). Oftentimes, the reality of a situation is different from the imagined scenario. Which brings us to today.
According to my Facebook, there’s a war on Christmas. Proof of this war can be seen in the fact that 7 Simon malls put up an interactive display straight out of Futurama instead of the usual tree and trimmings. Starbucks, they of the seasonal drinks and burnt coffee (yeah, I said it. I’m speaking truth here!) has a red cup instead of the annual Christmas one which has a different holiday decoration year to year. There has been a series of festive designs in the past, but this year’s simple red cup means war. It’s worth a mention that they did change up the cup as it’s not the standard white with green logo, and you may also notice it’s not white and blue with dreidels either. Still, get out your armor, folks. Rally the troops. “They” are coming for your holiday.
Except they’re really not. This is a fallacy; an imagined situation not matching up with reality. And here’s the crazy thing: I have seen people come together in outrage the likes of which I haven’t seen since… Ever. Not for women’s right to equal pay. Not for the black lives matter movement. Not for climate control. Not for healthcare. Not for planned parenthood. Not for gun control. Not for harsher punishments for rapists and domestic abusers. Not to reform the system in any truly broken way. I thought that nobody gets together collectively to make a meaningful change or difference and I had simply accepted that about society. I told the little idealist inside me who wonders why I don’t do more to make this world better that even activists get 9 to 5s eventually and settle down with 401s and mortgages. I remember personally being so earnest after 9/11. We were going to change the world. We were marching and protesting and getting loud. But then we got lazy. Lax. People seem to default to apathetic, until you don’t put a sled on a coffee cup or a giant tree all bedazzled smack in the middle of the mall. Then they come out in droves and make some changes, damn it. Reform must be called for! And y’all, I have tried to make it clear that I love Christmas. I love it like someone who was denied it for half her life. I made my dog take pictures with Santa when my son got too old. I count down until the day after Thanksgiving, and then I hang mistletoe in the hall and and use balsam tree air diffusers and bake cookies while wearing an apron with a reindeer emblazoned on it and an elf hat on my head. So remember that I get it: I too love all the accoutrement and bells and whistles of the holiday season (a rum de dum) and I truly do understand the feeling that these things bring. Remember that, and try to hear this with an open mind because I gotta tell you the truth: nobody is oppressing your religion or your Christmas. Promise.
The fact is that symbols are different than the things they represent. My wedding band may represent my marriage but if I were to take it off, I’d still be married. That’s how come I can have a tree even though I’m not a Christian. It’s a glamour, something beautiful and fun but really lacking in religious meaning and import. In fact, the tree is originally Pagan, which makes much greater symbolic sense, and has true roots to the earth and universe, quite literally. While a tree or a festive decoration may factor into Christmas, it’s not the reason for the season, as they say. And let’s just talk about that for a minute, because that’s actually a fairly oppressive statement if you think about it. The season is winter. One religion doesn’t own the season. But people say that like a fact, while still other people get mad when they have to say “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”, and while I don’t personally offend over that, you have to admit that smacks of some pretty righteous eurocentrism. It’s oppressive to you to include all? Come on now. Think about that for a minute. Like really think about it. This war on Christmas feels a lot like #notallmen and men’s rights activism. It sounds a lot like countering “black lives matter” with “all people matter”. It’s putting a dog in a fight that’s meant for cats. That’s not a great metaphor. I’ll speak plainly.
Here’s the truth: go to any Target, Rite Aid, Macy’s, Sephora- truly any store- and compare the Christmas offerings to the Hanukah ones. We get half an aisle compared to your 5. And let’s not even talk about how little is available to anyone outside these two denominations. I’m a minority, but I’m not invisible. Sinead O’Connor has a line in a song that I love: “If you’ve never seen a good time, how would you recognize one?” That has always really resonated with me. So to those who think that the mall and Starbucks are out to get you and oppress your beliefs and make you feel unwelcome, I have to steal her thought and just sincerely ask, “if you’ve never been persecuted, how would you recognize it?” Because I gotta tell you, this isn’t it. If you’re interested in jumping in a war this holiday season, how about the war on education? Maybe try the war on poverty and the middle and lower classes on for size. Imagine what could be accomplished with all that collective power! I hear Simon malls took less than 24 hours to bring in Christmas trees once the issue went viral. Mazel tov on this joyous occasion.