As a Jewish American, I find Christmas both restful and frustrating. It’s a day that I can’t do anything productive because nearly all of American life is shut down, but my clan doesn’t exactly gather in bright sweaters (we do latkes earlier in the season) and sing carols under a tree, so we’re sort of stuck in limbo. That’s why I almost always do what the rest of my “tribe” does: get Chinese food and head to the movies, maybe to two in a row. My fellow Jews know where it’s at.
Here’s the thing, though. For a few years running I’ve been noticing my non-Jewish friends glomming onto this tradition too, either for Christmas Eve or Christmas day. They may not know that the immaculate conception was actually Mary’s conception, not Jesus’s (a little Biblical fact my Jewish family likes to spring on our non-Jewish friends) but they do know how to find Dim Sum and a matinee on their Holy Savior’s birthday.
I’m not alone in my observation. At the Washington Post, Daniel Drezner says he’s noted movie theaters and Chinese restaurants getting more and more crowded by the year. These used to attract Jews because they were quiet experiences, he notes, but no more, as Christians choose Chow Fun over church. Thus, and he thinks Bill O’Reilly has it backwards and the war on Christmas is the other way around.
“I am here to say that the real threat all along as been the stealth War on Jewish Christmas,” he writes. “Christians in the United States are defeating Jewish Christmas the only way they know how — by assimilating those customs into their own Gentile rituals.”
This leaping upon our bandwagon (which I imagine has a lot to do with people broadcasting their plans on the internet) is complicated for us. American Jews have largely been accepted in this country without much residual oppression. But Christmas is one particular season when, at least for many of my fellow Jews, our cultural minority status truly feels visceral, even maddening in a low-key, stop-asking-me-what-I’m-getting-in-my-stockings kind of way. Everyone in the tribe, from secular to religious, unites in the fact that this isn’t our holiday. It’s also a time when we used to get killed pretty regularly back in Europe, so there may be a wisp of embedded ancestral memory that makes this whole Christmas issue touchy.
On the other hand, the reason “our” Christmas tradition is spreading has a lot to do with American Jewish culture in general, and its place (I generalize here) in wider American culture as a wise-cracking insider-outsider hybrid. My guess is that the insane pressure to have perfect Hallmark-card worthy holidays in America, which peaks at this season, has created something of a backlash. Thus Jewish Christmas has begun to work as a stand-in for “alternative Christmas” for anyone who craves something a little bit less mainstream, holly-festooned and quite frankly, costly for part or all of the holiday. That’s one of the reasons that maybe-hoax, maybe David Mamet cartoon about the “Chinese Restaurant Association” thanking their Jewish patrons on December 25 goes viral every year. Even loyal celebrants may want to avoid the shopping madness, distract their relatives, get their kids away from the present pile and sugar cookies, or otherwise escape from their party-hosting or attending obligations.
And thus Christmastime for the Jews has ended up being a jolly Bah Humbug for everyone (everyone besides the anti-Semites who think Hanukkah is offensive by its very existence). Which is fine, I guess, but if I stop being able to get reservations at my favorite Chinese joint and movie theater, I may join Drezner in imploring my Christian brethren to return to the fold and go to mass.