A holiday season email from a non-Jewish guy came to my Mixed and Matched column:
I love Christmas but my Jewish girlfriend won’t participate with me, and this is our first holiday season together. I’ve told her that Christmas isn’t really religious for me. The tree and Yule log are pagan originally; they have nothing to do with Jesus. Santa and Rudolph are just American holiday symbols like a turkey for Thanksgiving. Christmas is just what we do in America! How can I get through to her so we can have fun together? — Festive Guy
Dear Festive: Let me be frank with you. You are experiencing the myopic understanding of folkloric-Christian America. I don’t fault you for understanding the world through your own cultural upbringing. But I want you to reflect on what you’ve said, and try to see it through Jewish eyes.
Christmas means “Christ Mass” — that is, a religious service for the Christ. This is the origin and the core meaning of this holiday. Even if you don’t believe in what it expresses, it still represents the birth of the Christ. Its meaning remains intact. It’s like how Yom Kippur retains its meaning even though millions of non-Jews don’t observe Yom Kippur.
You mention that the tree and the Yule log are pagan in origin. True. However, Judaism has opposed paganism from the beginning — take a look at the stories in Genesis and Exodus.
Being pagan doesn’t make it OK. Christianity altered and integrated innumerable practices of the cultures it absorbed. Every country, every culture that has been rendered Christian has leftover traditions that have been adapted to a Christian understanding. That assimilation of indigenous peoples’ heritages is not seen as a plus by many Jews.
Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman (and even the Grinch), and so on, are indeed American symbols of stories that derive from Christmas and have little or no religious meaning or connection to Jesus. However, everyone knows that they are a part of this specific holiday and displaying them is a reference to Christmas.
You are right. All these symbols, stories and practices are “what we do in America.” Professionally, I refer to your view as American folkloric Christianity. You engage with Christianity more as folklore, like Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed.
However, unlike those American myths, Christmas is huge. It arrives in September and doesn’t exit until after New Year’s Day. It alters the entire American landscape. It infiltrates sports, government, commerce, media and daily social interaction. It is seen as sacred by many, which supercharges its role.
For you, and most Americans, Christmas is so much a part of the fabric of our culture that it is hard to see. Remember the saying “you can’t see the forest for the trees”? That’s what you are experiencing. It is just so darn hard to see a lifelong practice through the lens another.
For your Jewish girlfriend, Christmas may be the epitome of her otherness. As a Jew, she doesn’t observe this massive holiday. She has different holidays and they are the signposts on her calendar, for her life.
I don’t want to put words into your girlfriend’s mouth, so sit down with her and ask her to explain to you how she feels about Christmas and why. She may not dislike it, but simply does not want to participate in it.
The two of you need to understand one another’s viewpoints. Living in America, she assuredly is familiar with Christmas, but personalize it for her. Are there things you do with your family that are particularly meaningful to you? I have a friend who always chops down his own tree and another who has a Christmas cookie exchange. There will be things that your girlfriend refuses to do, but there may be activities that feel neutral to her.
I don’t know how serious you two are, but this conflict is a signal that if you are thinking about a permanent relationship, you should do some serious talking about what you each want in a partner and in the home you will make with that person. You don’t want to be expecting your first child and realize that you want the baby baptized and she wants a bris.