A Jewish person’s most wonderful time of year

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Every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving, my hometown best friend and I welcome the budding holiday season with a drive-through Christmas lights show. We drive 30-minutes south of our Long Island suburb to enter the consistently Disneyland-like state of rainbow snowmen, bedazzled reindeer and a mystifying amount of electronic snowflakes hitting the ground. At two miles-per-hour, we always take a moment to pause for the lone Menorah in the line up. 

“They remembered us!” We laugh it off. 

Is it paradoxical to be a proud Jew who also happens to deeply, unequivocally love the Christmas season? For much of my childhood, and even into recent college years, my relationship with Christmas has been comically uncomplicated for a Jewish person. Growing up,  I blasted “Last Christmas” by “Wham!” as if I’d been broken up with at a Christmas party when, in truth, I had never even been in a house with a Christmas tree. I relished visiting the Rockefeller Center tree—especially on Christmas Day when it was basically empty because all of the non-Jews were at home actually celebrating. I’m still excited by the idea of walking through Bryant Park, hot chocolate in hand and watching the ice skaters. Everything I’ve ever loved about Christmas had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with happy people and infectious energy. I grew up loving the commercialization of Christmas. The actual holiday? I barely regarded it.

I’ve always loved the idea of the holidays: the happy chaos, the traditions, the family. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve realized that holidays are more imperfect than we realize as kids. The planning is stressful, the event is often tense and the aftermath is almost never worth it. But as a Jewish person during Christmas time, I could participate in the cultural joy of the holiday without the actual “religious” responsibilities of celebrating it. Some might call that… a Christmas miracle? 

Who’s hosting? Who’s cooking? Who’s sitting next to who?

Don’t know. Don’t care. It’s my commercial holiday.

When I arrived at college, I realized that my Jewish Christmas experience wasn’t entirely typical. Other Jews were not necessarily laughing off the inclusion of one Menorah in a Christmas lights show. Rather, Christmas was a frustrating season—one that triggered feelings of exclusion and sadness. 

My fond take on Christmas is a privileged one. Growing up in the Five Towns of Long Island, an area all-but synonymous with Jews, meant that I never felt like a religious outsider. My public high school closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. All my closest friends were Jewish; in fact, we once thought it was funny to do a “Secret Santa” gift exchange amongst our friend group for the irony. I purchased a Santa hat. Even now as a Muhlenberg student, I am one of many Jews here. One third of the student body is Jewish. As a historically Lutheran institution, that is hilarious. 

It wasn’t until studying abroad in London earlier this year (Is there a non-cliché way to say that?) that I experienced the isolation of being “the Jewish friend.” Suddenly, no one else around me could relate to my ordinary cadence. The budding holiday at that time was Passover, and I remember needing to make a conscious effort to “celebrate” alone for the first time. Truth be told, all I wanted was some matzo pizza and a morning of matzo brei, but it had to be a conscious decision to bypass the confusion in my roommates’ eyes and honor my own intentions. (Both were great. Sugar and strawberry jelly on matzo brei is the best part of Passover.)

So now as Christmas comes around, I’ll appreciate the lights show and I’ll probably go see the Rockefeller tree but I’ll enter those situations with a new claim to my own Jewish identity. 

So, yes, you can be both a proud Jew and an undeterred Christmas lover. After all, it’s the most wonderful time of the year.

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