The Christmas thing. As I've explained before, and will need to do each year, there are a whole lot of Jews in this country (hi!) who were raised, perhaps inadvertently, with the understanding that non-celebration of Christmas is the central tenet of Judaism. You can explain to such individuals that Christmas is pagan/secular/commercial, or that there are far more important facets of Official Judaism than not celebrating Christmas, if that even ranks at all, or that there are far more positive ways of promoting being Jewish than making it about not having fun when everyone else is. But it's useless. If this is where you're coming from, if this is your experience, you can be neck-deep in Clams Casino on Yom Kippur and aghast at the idea of your halls being decked come December.
The seemingly bizarre notion that Judaism=non-celebration-of-Christmas isn't that strange, really, and is rooted in childhood. Because you're not engaged in theological discussions with your classmates, the way you know their religion, assuming a secular-ish, mixed-faith environment, comes down to one question: Christmas or Chanukah, or more essentially, Christmas or not. If this has always been your identity, it will not strike you as odd.
In the past, Emily "Prudence" Yoffe has sympathized with Jewish partners who aren't so into the Christmas thing. So the following letter-writer might be forgiven for thinking - mistakenly, it turns out - that Yoffe would find her approach to the holiday something other than insane:
I am Jewish, my husband is not. We were married by a rabbi, attend synagogue, and have a Jewish home. Our son, born this year, had a bris. My husband's parents live in a rural town across the country and know no other Jews. They have been open and welcoming and traveled at great expense and difficulty to our son's bris. But we have run into a problem with the upcoming Christmas, which we will spend with them. We intend to explain to our son that Christmas is Grandma and Papa's holiday, and accordingly we asked my mother-in-law to wrap any gifts for him in Hanukkah paper. My mother-in-law insists that Christmas has become a secular holiday and cannot understand why our son should not enjoy Christmas as her own son did. We see them rarely, so I do not want to taint the holiday with a stern message to them. I think our suggestion is a good compromise that allows their grandson to celebrate the holiday with them with minimal confusion and is consistent with the decisions we reached. How can I help my mother-in-law respect our wishes?Mom, in other words, has a touch of the nuts. If you marry someone who isn't Jewish and hasn't become Jewish, you relinquish your right to raise your children in full non-celebration-of-Christmas. Mom could explain to the in-laws about Judaism-as-non-celebration-of-Christmas, but who's to say a) that she could articulate it as precisely as I have on this here blog (and her wrapping-paper idea suggests not), or b) that they'd know what on earth she was on about if she did. But she is now a part of a family that is not entirely Jewish. This is different from being a citizen of a country that is not entirely Jewish. These rural folk who've never seen another Jew are her relatives, and what she needs to respect isn't any "Christmas is a secular holiday" nonsense, but that Christmas is a holiday celebrated, for whatever reason, by some of her relatives. She doesn't get to pretend that the entire family is Jewish when it isn't, especially when some of the relatives expected to join the masquerade have only the faintest notion of what "Jewish" is.
The Slate commenter responses to the nutty mom, however, are just as off as she is. Oh how cruel, that the Jewish mom isn't embracing diversity! When this is a pretty clear-cut case of a tiny minority's ways up against the mainstream culture. If the in-laws celebrated something that was also unusual and particular, but not Jewish, if Kwanzaa or the Chinese New Year were at stake, that would be its own matter. (One can read, in another recent Slate "Life" column, about some of the Christmastime traditions I married into but have not, alas, embraced as my own. A meta-diversity-issue if there ever was one.) But here, between Real American Christmas and its Jewish shadow holiday, there's a whopper of a power imbalance. To the commenters who thinks it's the same as a Christian kid being exposed to Chanukah, that is, to put it mildly, missing the point. It's all well and good, if your culture is that of the majority, to "tolerate" others. It poses no particular threat to your way of life. (The absurdity of the "war on Christmas" being, of course, that Christmas isn't going anywhere, but is in fact beginning earlier and earlier each year.)
It's not that minorities shouldn't tolerate the majority, but that what ends up being asked is that they thank and thank and thank the majority for tolerating them, and hold forth at any opportunity on how lovely they find the majority's traditions. Mom should, for the reasons mentioned above, accept that her in-laws celebrate Christmas, but her reaction, if nutty, is rooted in something sane.
But the responses that interest me most are the ones that latch onto the gender of the Jewish parent:
You come across as a control freak as I read over your letter. How very sad for your son. I know a few people who left the Jewish faith because they had mothers like this and of course had little to do with their mothers once they became of age. Is that what you want?And:
Reread the letter in the voice of Howard Wolowitz's (sp?) mom from Big Bang Theory. Can anyone else imagine how much of a pain the LW will become if her kid grows up and ends up dating or marrying outside of the Jewish faith?And!
It's paper and that LW sounds just like a commercialized selfish jewess...putting such restrictions on paper and confusing the holiday...her husband is spineless.Got that straight? The problem here isn't this woman, it's Jewish women, as a "type." Pushy, castrating, insane.