Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas for non-Christians

For most of my life, Christmas has been spent quietly eating Chinese food and watching movies--a fairly typical Christmas day for a Jewish family in Pennsylvania.  And not much has changed now that I live in California and the family members I live closest to are Chinese.  Christmas still involves, well, Chinese food.  Except that it's better Chinese food than before!

The only ingredient that's new is my in-laws' relaxed attitude about secular and pagan Christmas traditions:  the eggnog, the tree...the presents.

Aside from one uber-Christmas spent as an exchange student in Belgium, this is the first time I've gotten Christmas presents.  Why is it that my in-laws are completely unthreatened by these decidedly non-religious trappings of Christmas while I, and most of the other Jews I know, are made uncomfortable by them?

Not a Christmas elf!

Part of the answer may be that my Chinese relatives, aside from a few observant Buddhists, are not  religious to begin with, so they don't feel like Christian traditions are competing in any way with their own.  Unlike Chanukah, which usually falls in December, there are also no major Chinese or Buddhist holidays around the same time as Christmas.  Finally, since my husband and his family weren't born here, I suspect that they never even really noticed that Christmas was a religious holiday--the tree and the presents were just one more Americanism that they adopted, along with burgers, having a dog, and big cars.

Ultimately, I'm pretty sure that it's not the Christmas festivities themselves that bother me.  Rather, it's that I'm now living in an area without many Jews, and few family members, around.  So it's up to me to make Chanukah and other Jewish holidays feel festive.  If I'm tired, or low on free time (and with a new baby, those two things are virtually guaranteed), then nothing's going to happen.  Christmas makes me feel uncomfortable and slightly sad not because of Christmas, but because my own traditions haven't been celebrated as energetically.  This year, I didn't get any Chanukah presents--although the baby did!--and we didn't have any latkes; I lit the candles every night, but 'Maoz Tzur' just doesn't sound the same with only one person singing!

I also noticed that the lack of Chanukah festivities bothered me more this year than it has in the last couple years.  That's almost certainly because of Baby.  Having a child has made me suddenly aware of the responsibility--and the attendant joy--of exposing her to Jewish traditions and thought.

At least this train of thought has made up my mind about something I've been debating for a while:  I'm definitely going to join a local synagogue.  Having a community to fall back on, and someone to sing Maoz Tsur with me, will make me feel much more at home--and O.K. with having a glass of eggnog or two when the opportunity arises!

However, there is one Christmas day tradition that we've started in the last few years that I'd like to keep, and that I'd encourage all non-Christians to think about:  service.  For the last two years, we've helped to cook and serve a Christmas dinner at a soup kitchen down the street.  That is one Christmas tradition that I'd be proud for my daughter to learn.  Aside from Chinese food, of course!

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