It’s Starting to Look a Lot Like … December 25th

We American Jews of today are fortunate to be living in a place and a time that is very kindly to Jews. America has indeed been described as a “medina shel Chesed,” and truthfully, I don’t believe that there’s been any other place and time in our long Galus that was friendlier. Yes, occasionally in our long history, princes and caliphs welcomed Jewish merchants and their families to settle in their lands, bringing businesses and jobs and tax revenues that benefited both the ruler and the local populace…but we know all too well the painful end to most of those narratives.

I’m not of course shutting my eyes to the anti-Semitism that exists here, or to the many Orthodox Jews who still have fight in court for the right not to get fired from their jobs for keeping Shabbos or for wearing a yarmulke or for not shaving off a beard. But compared to the many places we Jews ran away from, or used to live in, or where there are now more dead Jews than live Jews (think Egypt, Syria, Lithuania, Poland, Spain….) it is blessedly peaceful.

And then we get to the month of December. Actually, now it seems more like November and December.

There’s no escaping it. The music is ubiquitous. Thankfully, a lot of the holiday hype is cultural-secular-kitsch rather than religious. Listen to the words of some of these so-called “Xmas” songs. (Or maybe not, they’re mostly terrible). For example, “Jingle Bells,” despite its long connection with the holiday, says nothing about “X” or “Xmas,” it’s just about riding in a “one horse open sleigh.” But that song, like a lot of other winter traditions, got co-opted, so to speak. I wouldn’t sing it near a shul or Yeshiva, but it’s not “Xtian.” I don’t think the songs “Let It Snow” or “Sweet Silver Bells” have anything to do with any “Xmas” themes either: they’re just winter songs.

I can remember once years ago that my oldest daughter, a Bais Yaakov graduate, ran around the house singing, “Frosty the Snowman.” (She evidently inherited my own offbeat sense of humor). Obviously she wouldn’t sing it at the Bais Yaakov, but it was more funny than anything else (again it’s not so much “Xtian” as hijacked into the holiday music repertoire). The best thing about all this Xmas music is that it vanishes on Monday, January 3rd, not to reappear for another ten or eleven months.

Also, somebody a long time ago decided that red and green are “Xmas” holiday colors, and that white and blue are Chanukah holiday colors. While I can sort of see the reasoning behind it (green for pine wreaths and trees, red for decorations, while white and blue are the colors of the Israeli flag and the tallit), it’s still sad that you can’t wear a red and green scarf because it looks too “Xmasy.” Likewise you can’t buy a kid pajamas with a snowflake design or a snowman pattern. Too “Goyish.” Too “Xmasy.”

The best thing about all this is the attitude of the Xtians themselves, we’re lucky that most Americans living in Year 2010 of the Common Era.don’t buy into the “Jews killed Jesus” rhetoric, we just have to keep out of their way at the “Black Friday” sales and smile when we ask the non-Jewish postal clerk for the flag stamps, please. I could buy into that smiling “Peace on Earth, Goodwill Towards Men,” stuff too, don’t we Jews greet each other with, “Shalom Aleichem,” and “Aleichem Shalom?” Then again, Muslims greet each other with, “Salaam Alaikum,” and “Alaikum Salaam,” and we all know how peace-loving the Muslims are….but this article is about December 25, not Eid al-Adha. (Another posting).

I live in the Borough of Queens, which is part of the City of New York. It is truly the melting pot of America. So many different nationalities, ethnicities and religions. Besides us Jews (who are also variously Americans, Russians, Israelis, Bukharians, Hungarians, etc. etc. etc.) there are also Buddhist and Confucianist Chinese, Hindus from India, Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh, West Africans from Mali and Ghana, Greeks, Italians, Koreans, Japanese, Roma [Gypsies], and American-born Blacks who belong to the many Xtian denominations. Nowhere else in the world could you find Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist storekeepers putting up Xmas decorations to lure in the Xmas shoppers buying gifts for the holiday. Only in America.

The December experience may be far different in towns and communities outside the City of New York. Friends who live in a suburb of Toronto, Canada tell me that the December experience where they live is far more serious and far more religious than the secularized-kitschy-wintery-Disneyized version that we get around here. Even then, my friends don’t go hide in a basement on “Nittel Nacht,” as Jews did in Eastern Europe years ago, fearing that the local “Galach” had whipped up “Xtian” frenzy, aided by alcohol, to go do a pogrom against the “Xkiller” Jews. Even those American and Canadian Xtians who attend church faithfully and deplore the secularization of their holiday generally don’t cause any trouble for us Jews. We’re in more danger from punk teenagers throwing frozen eggs on the night of October 31, Halloween, than we are from religious Xtians on the night of December 24th, Xmas Eve.

The biggest problem is what to say to our kids and grandchildren growing up who get exposed to all this. My daughter and her husband have a TV set, mostly used for kiddie videos and DVDs, the Sprout kiddie channel, “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” and football games for my son-in-law, a New York Giants fan. Their kids, my cute grandchildren, are 6-1/2, 5-1/2 and 3. Now when the commercials come on….the music comes on….the TV programs come on….this is the only programming during December, and now it reaches back to November too: Xmas programming. One Xmas special after another.

The obvious solution is get rid of your TV set. Of course, as a mother-in-law I don’t or can’t tell them what to do, they have to make their own life choices. For a lot of reasons (not the least being parental sanity) they prefer to keep the television. My son-in-law was saying the other day, he doesn’t know what to tell the kids about Xmas. I gave him some ideas, but as a shvigger I keep them just suggestions, not nagging. It’s best that he speaks to his own mentors, his own Rav, his own posaik, for advice as to what to do. How do you explain about Xmas to young Orthodox Jewish children? And maybe that’s only one part of the larger question of how do we raise our Orthodox Jewish children in a world that is mostly not Jewish and in many ways amoral and antithetical to our values? We have a lot more than just Xmas to explain to our children; we also have to explain to them on their level in a kid-friendly way about “bad touching” and “bad strangers,” and how to keep themselves safe from individuals who would hurt them. We can’t keep them in a bubble, and maybe we wouldn’t even want to keep them in a bubble, because then they wouldn’t recognize what evil is and how to stay away from it.

In the meantime, this week I’ll smile and wish my Latino Xtian co-workers “Happy Holiday” and “Have a nice weekend,” (they all wished me “Happy Chanukah” two weeks ago), and plan to spend December 24th like any other short winter Friday, cooking for Shabbos. Identical plans for December 31 the week after. (You might even catch me humming a “winter” song in my kitchen; shame on me – I should be humming Carlebach or Shwekey).

If enduring eight weeks of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is the price we have to pay for living in this Medinah Shel Chesed, then it’s a pretty small price to pay. If it all seems too much, get out the earplugs, and just remember…only 12 more days left until January 3!

43 comments on “It’s Starting to Look a Lot Like … December 25th

  1. This blog is not sponsored by any organization.

    Rabbi Horowitz and Rabbi Welcher, our Rabbinic Advisors may belong to many different organizations but are advising us as individual Rabbonim and not in any organizational capacity.

  2. I see no evidence that the blog is sponsored by anybody. Some people writing for it or commenting in it belong to the Agudah, but so what? If your input is not lashon hara, there is no need to specially tailor it.

  3. Dear Readers,
    It wasn’t until today that I realized that this blog might be tied into Agudath Yisroel. Had I known that Agudah sponsored the blog, I would never have come here. To those who were offended by any of my entries, I apologize. Best wishes to you as you continue to strengthen your beliefs and build new lives for yourselves.

  4. Charlie (#39),

    When I went to mincha today, someone mentioned that he saw somebody skiing on one of our local streets.

    Before he got a chance to say that you see “all kinds” in this neighborhood, I ‘fessed up. I told him that he had seen ME!

    I hope that your roads and parks stay skiable for many days to come.

  5. Judy,

    There was a 40 inch blizzard on March 12-13, 1888.

    I absolutely love snow, want more of it, and hope it stays around for a long time so I can do a lot of cross country skiing.

  6. From NY1, the official tally is 20 inches in Central Park, not a record-breaker but enough to paralyze the city, at least temporarily. The champ is still the 26.9 incher from February 11-12, 2006, which edged out the 26.4 inch blizzard from 1947. It also was not as big as the Jan. 6-7, 1996 blizzard from that long cruel winter of 95-96.

    Believe me, I don’t enjoy snow. Or ice. Cold weather I can live with, I just don my “perriner” (down coat) and I am warm even in single digit weather. It’s snow and ice I can’t take.

    Better than a hundred snowplows – the Borei Olam is sending the mercury up to 40 or 50 degrees by Shabbos – the snow will with Gd’s help be gone by next week!

  7. Another incentive to move to Israel: Down is coming in full fury the big blizzard of Boxing Day 2010, with high winds and whiteout conditions in New York and New Jersey. Tomorrow morning we’ll get the final figure on total inches and accumulations, but right now the weather outside is “frightful.”

  8. To Charlie #34: Thank you very much for the correction. I didn’t realize that Nazareth was actually within the pre-1967 borders of the State of Israel (not that it matters much to Hamas or Hezbollah who think it all should become part of “Falastin.”)

    Hopefully all of the Xmas pilgrims will return home and inform their church communities that the IDF watched over their safety and guarded their holy places. Will that change their feelings about the Israeli Defense Forces and Israel? Probably not.

  9. Judy,

    Narareth is within the borders of Medinat Yisrael; its residents are citizens of Mediant Yisrael. It used to be mostly Christian but now has a Muslim majority, partly because Muslim Arabs were expelled from other cities in Northern Israel (such as Tzfat) in 1948.

  10. Dear Judy,
    Go for it! It is our only hope!

    When Zayda came from Vilna to Galveston, I’m certain that he looked like the unmeltable ethnic. Today,his descendents are starting to intermarry. Zayda was a Yeshiva Bochur. He studied in Slobodka. Bubbe’s stepsisters (Karliner Chassidim) told me that they wore tichels down to their noses when they arrived in Israel. If they had no insurance policy re: assimilation, neither do any of us chozrei l’ teshuvah.

  11. I would love one day to have enough money to move to Israel. My married daughter and her husband and two kids are moving next summer, Gd willing, courtesy of Nefesh B’Nefesh. I’m just scared of becoming a financial burden over there. Not that I want to be a big spendthrift, but to have enough to pay the bills seems like it would take a minor miracle. I think I discussed this at length on a different thread. There December 25 is just another day of the week (except for the pilgrims who visit Nazareth and Bethlehem, both now part of the P.A.).

  12. My wife and I were shopping at the Kroger supermarket this morning, and the cashiers were giving their holiday greetings to everybody. But ours noticed our stuff included Neriot, so she held back in our case. And the bagger wished us a Good Shabbos!

  13. Let’s all have some fun today! Get out your C.D.s and blast some Shabbos music all throught the house while you do your preparations.

    If you want to start thinking of Spring, go to you tube, put in a search for Moishe Oysher or Chad Gadya. When you hear it, you’ll want to dance. Modzitzer music is also nice.

    Good Shabbos! Good Shabbos! Good Shabbos!

  14. In the comments under the Maccabeats video, one guy wrote, “All religions are a sham, but I liked this video.” Another wrote that he was a Jewish Athiest (that’s like a married bachelor), and he liked the video.

    It’s just entertainment for them. How sad.

  15. We Orthodox Jews lead isolated lives. Let’s try to remember that in the world we came from, 50% of our peers married out. College, and “the most wonderful time of the year” didn’t help much. The distinctions between us and the goyim became blurred for far too many of them.

  16. When I go to the mall during the “Winter Holiday Season” the songs they play are always sung by Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand.

    I was glad that Neil Diamond knew how to sing Kol Nidre, but when he sang it in the Jazz Singer
    it was very offensive. Those 2 are on my list!

    Regarding my high school: To make the Jewish Community happy, they have a High Holiday Concert. Thank heavens for day schools. Enjoy this Shabbos to the max!

  17. My sister made aliyah because she doesn’t have to listen to seasonal music, secular and otherwise by living in Israel.

    In grade school,both she and I had to appear in pageants where we sang the standard seasonal songs followed by the good old grand finale, “I have a little dreidle”.

    We remember the entryway of our public school, where they had a huge, beautifully decorated tree and an electric menorah that seemed to be dwarfed by it.

    Lastly, we recall our senior lounge, which was painted with all sorts of things that make people feel nostalgic about Dec. 25th. We also remember how the high school choir members walked around the corridors of the school while singing the seasonal tunes that were the most religious in nature.

    I detest shopping during this season. I don’t like the thought of having foreign holiday music running through my head. It is because of this season that I vowed that none of my offspring would ever go to public school! I felt excluded from American society because of this season, and perhaps, I should see it as a bracha. I am a Jew, first and foremost.

    Every time I hang up with my sister I say L’Shana Ha Ba B Yerushalayim. I.Y.H. one day I’ll get there. At least I’ll be able to watch as the menorah is lit by the Kotel Ha Maaravi. Menachem Lipkin, I am jealous!

  18. I also find interesting, and scary, the fact that a lot of anti-Jewish hatred comes out at this time of year. I clicked on the link supplied by Mark Frankel #18 and found myself at the CNN website section on “Belief.” There was an article by Jessica Ravitz about the lack of good Chanukah songs, “Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel” not exactly making the Top 40 Hit Parade on anyone’s list. The article was OK, but then I started reading the 287 comments afterward. Some of the commenters were openly full of hate for Jews, while others seemed to take offense to Ravitz’ comment that it “depressed” her to listen to Xmas music. Others objected to the Jewish objections to the prevalence of their holiday. I know you can’t take most bloggers seriously, a lot of them are stupid and some are outright crazy, but it is scary to know that there are probably plenty of people who feel that way, even in a tolerant, diverse, multiethnic country like America.

  19. To Menachem Lipkin #13: I clicked on your link and read Michael Rosen’s article in the National Review. What I found most offensive, even frightening, wasn’t the main theme or premise of the article. It was the one line that quoted radio personality Garrison Keillor about all that lousy music written by Jewish guys, and how music should only be written by “members of the club.”

    One remark by one person isn’t much. But it’s like a snowflake. One snowflake is OK. A lot of snowflakes…not. There have been just too many of these anti-Jewish remarks recently. It’s more than a little scary. Add them all up: Mel Gibson, Sanchez, Helen Thomas and now Garrison Keillor. Yes, I know it’s not the America of the 1930’s with the screeds of Father Coughlin on the radio. But especially coming from a noted moderate and intellectual like Keillor, it’s pretty shocking.

  20. Nice article!
    Another thing to consider, is that many Christians don’t celebrate Christmas. I think it is a little known fact to many Jews (and maybe even some Christians) but particularly religious groups wont even acknowledge it as a holiday since it has pagan roots. You think it’s confusing for your kids to be left out of Christmas? I bet it’s 10 times more confusing for Christians who don’t celebrate Christmas!

  21. Tomorrow night, when I say, “Ki Banu Bocharta V Otanu Kidashta” I’ll try to recall that it is this season that keeps reminding me of my identity.

  22. “For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”

    From the records of the General Court,
    Massachusetts Bay Colony
    May 11, 1659

    When people want to talk about the “War on Christmas”, I try to get them to agree that the country should go back to the early Colonial traditions.

    They seem somewhat upset when I point out that that would involve arresting people for celebrating the holiday, or even taking the day off.

  23. “Why This Orthodox Jew Loves Christmas Music”.

    I wanted to throw up when I read this.

    What is a supposedly Orthodox Jew doing writing an article promoting religious practices of another religion? That a supposedly Orthodox Jew would write something like this shows the level of assimilation in our own frum communities.

    Furthermore, he completely distorts history. The Pilgrims had total religious freedom in the Netherlands, they fled to America because they could not convince their fellow Dutch Calvinists to sufficiently oppress other religious movements (including Jews). Harvard and Yale were set up to train Calvinist ministers and would never have allowed a Jew to attend in their early years; indeed Jews were not permitted to live in either Massachusetts or Connecticut. Both colonies expelled heretics under penalty of death and Massachusetts actually hanged four Quakers for not obeying the order to leave. The First Amendment initially did not apply to states; Connecticut continued its oppressive religious establishment until 1818 and Massachusetts until 1833. Other colonies were slightly less draconian; Jews could not serve in New York’s colonial legislature, could not vote in Maryland until the 1820s, and even in otherwise tolerant Rhode Island could not become naturalized British subjects. And even those who didn’t face official discrimination found themselves the target of aggressive conversion efforts: No less a figure than than John Wesley learned Spanish in order to try to convert the Sefardic Jews of Georgia.

    George Washington was a very special person but he was unusual for his time. The “no religious test” clause in the Constitution was mainly intended to prevent Puritans from restricting Anglicans and vice versa; Jews happened to benefit greatly. Fortunately most Americans did accept Washington’s tolerant ideas. But we should not whitewash the fact that America did not start off this way nor that we still face aggressive conversion campaigns.

  24. Bob,as the author mentions in the story, maybe there’s another reason why some of these songs sound good to us…

    For many years on the first days of Pesach I davened at a Syrian shul in Deal, NJ. One of the tunes they used every year during Hallel was what I recognized as the Christmas song “Oh Tannenbaum”. I was blown away the first time I heard this, but there’s a good chance that they got it from us.

  25. Menachem, if it’s in the National Review it must be Gadol approved ! (please, tongue in cheek here)

  26. The author of the linked article needs to understand the proper and improper place of aesthetics. There are Jewish values way higher on the list than “sounds good”.

  27. Most Greek letters evolved from Phoenecian letters (which are basically the same as the “Canaanite” characters discussed in the Gemara. But the Wikipedia article on the Greek alphabet indicates that the “Chi” was a later addition to the alphabet, with no cognate in the Phoenician (or Hebrew) alphabets.

  28. It was the way he said, “And everyone is soooo peaceful”, like I imagine the way some tzaddim would look when Shabbos comes in…totally at peace, and this kid has the idea that his neighbors feel the same way for two weeks straight.

  29. I used the “X” more in the sense of Charlie Hall #3 rather than Menachem Lipkin #1. I had previously seen “Xtian” used on this blog and thought it might be preferable. No offense meant to anyone.

    I have Macedonian and Uzbek clients whose languages use a form of the Greek alphabet, where “X” does represent the “Ch” sound. I am not sure if the equivalent letter in Ivrit is the “Chet” or the “Khaf,” but it is the same “Ch” or “Kh” sound (the name “Akhmad,” for example, might variously be written in English as Achmed, Ahmad, etc. as English does not have a letter for that sound).

  30. On the other hand, I recently heard a 6th grader in our school ask why we couldn’t be part of this holiday…”It’s looks so much fun. A tree, egg nog, everyone is peaceful.”

    ross, the grass is always greener, no matter what you’re exposed too. The non-Jews who are running around buying presents and stressed about their credit card debt and their dysfunctional family reunions feel anything but peaceful!

  31. Indeed some Christians who aren’t familiar with their religion’s history incorrectly object to the “X”. They would be on sounder ground objecting to the Xmas trees.

  32. I remember being in Bnei Brak in the summer and hearing an ice cream truck playing ‘Santa Clause is Coming to Town’. I assume the kids were clueless, and I couldn’t stop laughing.

    On the other hand, I recently heard a 6th grader in our school ask why we couldn’t be part of this holiday…”It’s looks so much fun. A tree, egg nog, everyone is peaceful.” He really said this. So…what’s with Shabbos and Yom Tov? Oy.

  33. Cute!

    Not really a retraction at all, as my underlying point remains since most of us who use the X and many (most?) of those who read it aren’t aware of its true meaning.

  34. Menachem, The force with you made your comment followed by Charlie’s correction and your partial retraction (?) reminds me of the Gilda Radner character on Saturday Night Live who would go on a long rant and then somebody would point out a problem with one of her assumptions to which she would reply – “Never Mind”.

    I would also like to think about your assumptions regarding what our children should be exposed to. If somebody blocks “You Tube”, would you think it’s improper chinuch.

  35. Didn’t know that about the “X” and I think many Christians don’t either. (According to Wikipedia it still bother’s many.) But in the end I guess the joke’s on us!

  36. Some Jews think that using the “X” gets away from acknowledging the belief in a Messiah by the Christians. This is not true; the “X” is really the Greek letter “Chi”, the first letter of “Christ” in Greek, and has been used by Christians to symbolize their Messiah (“Christ” is just Greek for Messiah) since early in the days of that religion.

    Also, while most of the Christian “traditions” such as Christmas trees are of pagan origin (and Christmas trees themselves were unknown in the English speaking world until about 200 years ago), gift-giving is an old Christian tradition based on a narrative in their holy texts.

    Finally, I find it interesting that in much of Colonial America (the Puritan sections), Christmas was not celebrated at all. December 25 did not become a federal holiday until 1870. (The right wing pundits who are decrying a supposed “war on Christmas” should re-learn their history.)

    The thing that bugs me is the convolution of Chanukah and Christmas by well meaning people who don’t understand that they are two very different holidays!

  37. Ironically, wasn’t it our landsmen in retail who invented the grandiose shopping season? They were the ones “Black Friday” put into the black.

  38. Nice piece Judy. Even though I’ve lived in Israel for the past 7 Christmases, I have to say that I do miss the ambiance of the “season”. (I confess that I even occasionally listen to a song or two on YouTube.)

    I understand why people use the “X” when referring to the holiday or the religion. However, we must remember that this is a public forum accessible to all. It’s one thing to throw in the occasional Xmas, that’s often done even in secular ads to save space, but your use of the “X” was a bit heavy handed and such would be offensive to some people reading this. Rather than risk offending people I think we should be able to handle the use of words like Christian.

    There’s somewhat of a paradox in your message. On the one hand you’re saying that it’s not the end of world if we enjoy these songs because they’ve been stripped of any religious meaning. Yet you also decry a world filled with amorality that is antithetical to “our” values. However, it’s this very secularization that is compromising morality. (Just look at Europe for a clearer example.)

    Finally, what you state as the “biggest problem” is hardly a problem at all. Do you really know hoards of orthodox Jews who’ve left Judaism because they saw Christmas decorations, heard Carols, or saw a Santa? Learning about other people, cultures and religions is a wonderful opportunity to teach our children about the world and the people in it and how it’s not just all about us and that we have a place in this world and a message to share. IMHO a much bigger problem facing our community is a growing xenophobia and supremicism which is leading to more and more really bad behavior.

    I know I sound like a broken records with this, but our kids are much more resilient than we give them credit for. (With my older kids I was adamant that my NYC aunt not take them to see “The Nutcracker Suite”. Now, as adults, even they will tell me how silly I was being.) If we’re not careful, our well intentioned protectionism can engender a greater curiosity and feelings of deceit and resentment.

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