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Jewish in a winter wonderland

The Christmas season was always a time of curiosity for me. I grew up in a Jewish home, but went to public schools that had very small Jewish populations. My closest friends for most of my life were not Jewish. I would spend time decorating trees at my friends’ houses, going to Christmas parties where I would play secret Santa, walk around the neighborhood to visit the pretty, lit-up houses and play Christmas tunes in band during our winter concerts.

It has been a couple of years since I inadvertently celebrated Christmas, but for a week this winter break, I took a trip to Wisconsin to spend time with my close friend and former roommate Riann.

She wanted me to go visit for Christmas, maybe so that she would have a better time. She hates Christmas for its what she feels is its blatant superficiality. Through her experiences, she’d found that Christmas is a time when the dysfunctional try to be functional, when years of bad blood between people is hoped to be miraculously cured by a night of gift giving in the name of Christ and good will toward men. She thinks that things such as kindness, giving and happiness shouldn’t be saved for a moment in time. It should be a constant state of being. I thought that with her grinchlike attitude, we’d get to skip out on the family hoopla.

That was not the case. I ended up attending three Christmas get-togethers: one morning with her mom, one evening with her dad and another morning with close friends of the family.

At first I thought, “Why would somebody deliberately put themselves through this?” But as a student of religious studies, I was excited to directly experience an aspect of this faith as an outsider and more specifically as a Jew.

It was strange to me to have three things to do for Christmas and nothing to do for Hanukkah – but then again, Hanukkah as a Jewish counterpart to Christmas was always a silly idea to me. Other than occurring around the same time of year, there are no correlations between the two.

Christmas is not to Christians what Hanukkah is to Jews. My parents have always told me that of all the Jewish holidays – there are approximately a million – Hanukkah was not the most significant, by far. In fact, when I celebrate with my family each year, on each of the eight nights my father simply says the Hanukkah blessings, which praise God for granting us life up to this point and for performing miracles that saved the Jews from many trials.

My parents, who emigrated from Israel, would always tell me that gift giving on Hanukkah is an American phenomenon. Even as a kid it didn’t bug me, and I never felt too left out during the “giving” season. I was happy to avoid the havoc of Christmas shopping fever. It was also hard not to be a part of gift exchanges with my friends. One year my mom gave into the buying fever and attempted to give me a present for each day of Hanukkah. She made it to about day four. Even as a child, I knew it felt forced to her.

These days, I will occasionally receive gifts on Hanukkah, but I won’t say that gifts are a mandatory facet of Hanukkah by any means, as I found them to be in my experience celebrating Christmas.

The first little celebration I attended, on the morning of Christmas Eve, was low-key. There were seven of us: Riann’s mom, her boyfriend, his two young kids, her sister and me. When everyone arrived, we went to the living room, decided it was fair to just let everyone open their gifts at once and started ripping things open. The energy was fervent. We each looked around at each other, giving thanks for the gifts, “oohing” and “aahing” at them. I received two great gifts and gave one.

The energy peaked and dropped in a matter of minutes. The kids ran off with their new toys, and we were left sitting and chatting, like on any other day.

I looked around at the Christmas tree and a few crosses on the wall. I knew Riann’s mom was more into what is now known as New Age spirituality more than anything, so I casually asked her if there was any Christ in her Christmas.

She gave a delightful, bellowing laugh and said, “That’s a good one!”It seemed like for that household, Christmas was a tradition that just kept rolling into each year without much regard for deep, religious meaning. It was a time to be with family more than anything, even if only for a short while.

The next morning was similar. Opening gifts and spending time with family was on the agenda for the day.

The get-together I attended the night before, on Christmas Eve proper, had a slightly different vibe. There were many more people: aunts, uncles, cousins, grandchildren – a large family affair. I spent most of the night munching on the little food I could eat – pork was on much of the menu – and chatting here and there. Eventually, it was time to open presents.

Everyone made their rounds and handed out all of their gifts. Then, the night took a slightly unexpected turn. One of Riann’s devoutly Christian uncles read a brief birth narrative of Jesus, easy enough for the kids to understand, and explained that he, as their lord and savior, is the reason for the holiday.

That was the first time I heard, in person, about the religious significance of this popular holiday. Later I asked Riann how many people in the room she knew to have the same thoughts about Christmas. They numbered a handful.

After he spoke, one of Riann’s cousins read A Christmas Carol, and then it was time to open presents. Like my experience earlier that day, the night climaxed at that point and soon after, people began to leave.

While I think that gifts of love and compassion overrule monetary gifts any day, I must say it was nice to get some cute things from people I care about, and I saw that others felt the same way. Christmas has, by far, more of a superficial than religious air -the economic boost our country gets each year when it rolls around serves as proof – but I found that spending time with the people you care about was also a major component of the season.

I found that as much as Riann hates Christmas, I know she had a great time spending time with friends and relatives. If Christmas has to be the only time that our society can pause, get people to spend time with one another in the midst of our busy lives, then that’s not so bad. If only we, as a society, could find more time to delve into this state of kindness and love, we would all be in a better place.