Here at Values, Ethics, Community, I’m crawling out from under the best of the season to revisit the December dilemma. Since I last wrote about the topic, the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews revealed that one in three American Jews have a Christmas tree in their home. Among intermarried Jews, the number climbs to 71 per cent.
Certainly, this is largely a function of intermarriage, given that only seven per cent includes Jews with a Jewish spouse. Still, to understand the trend toward Jews celebrating Christmas, we might want to pause to consider this past season’s most overused neologism: Thanksgivukah. When I visited the Jewish Museum in New York in December, I was reminded of the ubiquity of this year’s double-holiday oddity in Jewish America, where the famous plaster Turkey chanukiyah – issued for this year alone – sat on the sale shelf.
As the Thanksgivukah craze was cresting, I found myself getting annoyed: a sure-fire sign that something was nagging at my unconscious. I soon realized that part of the driver of my annoyance was surely a not insignificant helping of envy. And why envy? Because nothing in the Canadian Jewish culture comes close to the experience that American Jews (and Muslims, Christians and Buddhists) get to have each November.
There is something so festive and charming about an entire nation’s inhabitants criss-crossing the country to meet at each other’s dining room tables adorned with a roast bird served alongside the best of the autumn bounty. The idea that the holiday is non-religious means that everyone is encouraged to partake. Sure, we have Canadian Thanksgiving in mid-October, but the inclusiveness and passion of our version pales in comparison.
In an alternate universe, or perhaps even in a few decades, maybe Christmas in North America will resemble American Thanksgiving in its pan-cultural significance. Already, according to Pew, nine out 10 Americans celebrate Christmas, while only half of Americans see Christmas as mostly a religious holiday. Startlingly, the vast majority of non-Christians – eight of 10 – celebrate Christmas. Of course, there is nothing inherently Christian about cooking a Turkey or sipping egg nog. And the Christmas tree is usually considered to be more pagan in its origins than Christian. In its entry on Christmas trees, Wikipedia, citing the Encyclopedia Britannica, suggests the evergreen was used by several ancient cultures, including the Hebrews, to symbolize eternal life.
But, since that is what the majority faith-culture does, the Jewish minority tends to seek to remain distinct by not partaking. Or at least that is what our community leaders have taught us. Giving up Christmas has long been considered a fundamental attribute of conversion to Judaism, for example.
One children’s book author and illustrator offers a different take. On my blog at Haaretz.com, I recently wrote about my friend Selina Alko, a Brooklyn-based children’s book illustrator, whose latest work, Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama, portrays an intermarried couple who provide a distinctly blended holiday tradition for their children. Daddy puts latkes out for Santa as he stuffs the turkey with cranberry kugel stuffing. Mama makes sufganiyot and fruitcake for dessert.
Many Jews may take issue with the idea that Jewish traditions should be mixed and stirred with Christian ones. But, when looking for adjectives in my Haaretz piece, I threw in the word “sacred” as a prefix for these symbols. One reader called me on it.
She was correct that neither latkes nor fruitcake are considered sacred in any meaningful sense. This then leads me to wonder whether the most prominent markers of Jewish tradition aren’t actually mostly secular, while Judaism’s sacred aspects are less visible and thus less commonly acknowledged. Is the sukkah sacred? How about hamentaschen? Purim costumes? An etrog and lulav? Sheets of matzo? A break-the-fast meal? Or is the sense of family and togetherness, covenant and intention a better marker of sacred pursuits?
If the way most Jews celebrate Jewish holidays and mark Jewish traditions does tend to centre on candles and food, costumes and stories, then will we be much worse off as a people if we eventually cook fusion cuisine and dip into multiple narratives? I don’t yet have answers, but I wouldn’t mind a second helping of shortbread in the meantime.
Mira Sucharov, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University, blogs at Haaretz.com.