Years ago, while I was teaching abroad in Prague, my Jewish friends and I were trying to decide where we might go during our winter holiday break.
The trouble was that traveling in Europe during Christmas was a problem. Many of the sights we’d want to see would be closed, not to mention restaurants or even supermarkets. We didn’t want to waste our vacation stuck in some hotel room, bored, starving, and alone while everyone around us was happily celebrating with friends and families.
That’s when we thought of Israel. A short, inexpensive plane ride from Prague. A country where, for the most part, Christmas was just a rumor.
After the biting wind and slushy snowbanks of Prague, warm, sunny Israel in late December seemed to us a miracle. The fruit was tangy and fresh, the flowers dizzyingly purple, yellow, and pink, the food bold with deep, earthy flavors that we rarely encountered in the muddy goulashes and gravies of Central-Eastern Europe of the 1990s.
One afternoon while on the bus in Tel Aviv, I overheard two Filipina women talking in English to an Israeli friend they’d run into on their way home.
“We’re leaving work early today,” one of them explained. “It’s our holiday.”
Holiday? What holiday?
The date was December 24th, Christmas Eve. I had completely forgotten.
It felt eerie to hear Christmas referred to as “our holiday.” For years as a Jew in America, I had learned to apply the half-apologetic “our holiday” to any number of festivals like Rosh Hashanah or Hannukah or Passover that only we Jews, a tiny smidgen of the country’s population, observed. In America, celebrating Christmas was the norm. We apostates who marked the occasion by going to the movies and eating at Chinese restaurants were the exception.
Yet for some reason, I found that I missed Christmas while I was in Israel. To be clear, I had no yearning to celebrate the birth of Christ, who, judging from the general mood, seemed entirely beside the point of the holiday. To me, Christmas was about shopping malls echoing with jingle bells and choruses of saintly voices singing of Bethlehem; bakeries redolent with the scent of cinnamon, cloves, and ginger; non-Jewish friends’ living rooms decked out in green velvet bows and puffy Christmas stockings.
Christmas for me as a young Jew was an important holiday because it was a time when I had affirmed my identity by what I did not do.
Some of my most vivid memories as a kid consisted of looking on with envy as the neighbors strung up their winking red and green lights around their houses, or adorned trees with colorful glass balls and shimmering tinsel. Once I even begged my parents for a Hannukah bush. “Doesn’t a Christmas tree look like a dreidel if you turn it upside down?”
That one did not fly. In fact, when it came to all things Christmas, my parents’ attitude was a decided “Bah, humbug.” I remember they used to laugh at the frenzy with which their Christian friends went shopping for presents. “Like little kids.” A Jew having a Christmas tree would have been the equivalent of an adult who hadn’t learned to use the toilet. The implication was clear: The reason we didn’t celebrate Christmas was that we knew better than those silly Christians.
Today, I’m married to a man who was brought up with Christmas, and so we mark the holiday in addition to Hannukah. We light a menorah and plug in a Christmas tree heavily laden with the gaudiest ornaments we can find. As the cook in the family, I make the latkes as well as the Christmas cookies, and I bring the latter over to my in-laws on Christmas Day, when we give and receive presents.
Yet now that I’ve gotten to fulfill my childhood Christmas longings, I have to admit there’s always been something about it that for me has felt just a bit stiff. And when I recall that Christmas in Israel, it becomes clearer to me why that is. Because in addition to the colored lights and the smells and the sounds of the holiday, there was one more thing I was missing during my reprieve from the holiest Christian day of the year, which at the time I didn’t recognize.
I missed feeling like a foreigner in my own land. I missed the feeling of being an outsider, the feeling that while everyone else was doing something, I was doing something different, just like the Filipina women on that bus in Tel Aviv. Christmas for me as a young Jew was an important holiday because it was a time when I had affirmed my identity by what I did not do.
Now that I do participate in Christmas, I can still affirm my Jewish identity during the holiday, though in a different way than I did when I was young. I do this by simply being aware that the festival I’m celebrating is not my own. I enjoy it all the same, just as I might enjoy marking Chinese New Year or Diwali or a feast at the end of Ramadan. I feel happy that I can share in others’ happiness, a slightly different joy than when it’s more genuinely my own.