Sunday, December 24, 2006

"Secular" Christmas

I was contacted recently by a reporter from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review for an article about the "secularization" of Christmas. We hear this a lot at this time of year: that Christmas has become a secular holiday because its most popular observances -- decorations, presents, etc. -- are not inherently religious. But this notion, that secular observances make a holiday secular, is completely contrary to the Jewish way of thinking about holidays and their traditions. From a Jewish perspective, doing secular things for a religious holiday makes the secular things religious; it does not make the religious holiday secular.

In Judaism, many of our holidays are observed with traditions that are quite mundane and secular in nature. What, after all, is so very religious about eating fried food, gambling for chocolate coins and lighting candles, as we do on Chanukkah? Or playing hide-and-seek with a piece of matzah, as we do on Passover? Or camping out in a booth on your patio, as we do on Sukkot? Or getting drunk and having a carnival, as we do on Purim? Or eating three large meals, as we do every Shabbat? But from a Jewish perspective, any activity we perform as part of the celebration of a holiday is understood to be a religious activity, regardless of whether that activity could be done at another time in a secular context. There's nothing inherently religious about eating latkes (fried potato pancakes). If we eat them because it's Chanukkah, then it's a religious activity; if we eat them during Passover because they are unleavened, then it's a religious activity; if we eat them on an ordinary day because they're a tasty treat, that's not a religious activity.

What about something as simple as decorating for the holiday? Isn't that a secular activity? In Jewish tradition, we would refer to decorationg as "chiddur mitzvah," beautifying the commandment. We see it as an act of great religious significance when we expend significant amounts of time and money to make a holiday or other observance more beautiful, more enjoyable. When I decorate my sukkah for Sukkot, hanging pictures on the walls and decorative gourds from the roof, that is a religious activity in Judaism.

There is really no question that all of the "secular" activities that go on at this time of year are being done because it is Christmas. People put up a Christmas tree and decorations and lights because it is Christmas, not just because it's pretty. They buy presents because it is Christmas, not just because it’s a nice thing to do. They eat candy canes because it is Christmas, not just because they taste good. They listen to Jingle Bells and Frosty the Snowman because it's Christmas, not just because they're catchy tunes. They extol the virtues of Peace on Earth and Good Will Towards Men because it's Christmas, not just because it's a good idea. And whether they focus on this aspect or not, and whether this aspect is important to them or not, they know that Christmas commemorates Jesus’ birth.

From the Jewish understanding of religious activity, these secular customs do not make Christmas secular; Christmas makes these secular customs religious. I think on a gut level, a lot of Jews feel that, though they may not be able to explain that feeling. That is why many Jews feel so alienated at Christmas, and so outraged when Christians try to pressure us to observe Christmas customs.


Astrid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
autumn_rain said...

This is a great post. Some of my Jewish friends have a great aversion to what I view as very secular traditions but haven't really been able to explain it well to me, leaving me confused and also unable to explain my point of view. However, in such a short article, you have explained this very well.

I see many components of late-Decemeber celebrations to be very secular and have nothing to do with christian tradition (I'm technically a christian...). I mean evergreen trees? Images of smiling snowmen painted on shop windows? These are the things that growing up christian, were actually forwned upon because they had nothing to do with celebrating the birth of christ. They have always been for me a winter celebration, that has had nothing to with the christian celebration of Jesus's birth...and I guess that's the reason, why I didn't understand how other people could perceive these things to be so christian.

My biggest confusion was the general opposition to the decorated evergreen tree which some of my Jewish friends had. It's just a tree, I would always think, and it has absolutely nothing to do with christmas...but rather originates from pagan traditions celebrating the winter solastice. In my mind, nothing could possibly be more sexular than celebrating winter as a season. But after your compelling post, I do know see that the very fact that it is nowadays called a christmas tree (which annoys me, but it is very commonplace); the very attribution of such a name makes it relgious, and not secular. Of course, I can now, being a little older and more mature understand that pagan traditions can also be seen as religious observances that those of the Jewish faith may want to avoid.

Because of the season and associated symbols, I can see why the images that I see as secular and non-christian can appear extremely christian, especially when over the years they have been labelled, incorrectly, as and then widely adopted by some christians.

But now I have another question. While I know have a better understanding of the rejection of so-called secular imagery, would it be frowned upon to for Jews to use the imagery if the intention was actually completely non-secular in their own heads and thier intention was not to celebrate idealogy they did not beleive in?

For instance, the story of one of my friends from college comes ot mind. She is Jewish, and before our winter exams would decorate her room with a small tinsel tree with lights and baubles because it was pretty, and it was nice to have some sort of marker that exam season was starting and ending and winter holidays would be upon us soon. She didn't celebrate christmas...this imagery just became a way for her to celebrate that winter time of year when exams would soon be done and we could all go home! Yet, I know some people critisized her and told her that she can't just celebrate religious holidays indescriminately and that she couldn't just "pick and choose" what was acceptable. And I'm jsut wondering, from a Jewish point of view, is that acceptable?

I really hope you'll see this and respond to this...although it is long after the pertinent season of discussion...becuase I'm really interested in knowing the ideas and the rationale. In your belief, does intention override the actual act and make it acceptable?

JewFAQ said...

Autumn: I'm glad I was able to help you understand that. I admit, for a long time I had a hard time expressing what I felt in my gut, that Christmas is not secular even if its trappings have non-religious or non-Christian origins.

Regarding your friend who had Christmas-like decorations: hmn... well, there is a religious objection within Judaism in general to imitating the ways of the gentiles. For example, some people object to anyone putting flowers on a Jewish grave, because that's a gentile custom (the Jewish custom is to put a stone on the grave). And that same objection is often raised when people try to shoehorn Christmas customs into Chanukkah: Chanukkah bushes and lights and so forth.

And I admit, there was a time when I was a bit more hardline about Jews celebrating Christmas. In fact, I had an argument with my mother about this when I was a senior in college: in December, she put Christmas-style candles in the window (a 5-candle wedge-shaped arrangement of white candles). She insisted it wasn't a Christmas thing; it was a New England thing. My attitude was "if you want candles in the window, there's a Jewish time and way to do it, and this ain't it."

But I've mellowed since then, or maybe I've just learned to pick my battles. If that's what your friend wants to do, she's certainly welcome to it. I admit it saddens me somewhat that she can't find a Jewish way enjoy of that time of year, but if that's what she wants to do, that's her choice. I'm more concerned when another person insists that a Jew must celebrate Christmas (whether the Jew wants to or not) because it's "not really religious." "We'll call it a Holiday Gift Exchange instead of Secret Santas, so you can participate!" Um, no thanks. And I've gotten that pressure from Jews as well as Christians.

Ronnie said...

How do you feel about Christians who might choose to celebrate a Jewish holiday for whatever personal reason they may have? Good or bad?

JewFAQ said...

@Ronnie: I wouldn't want a Jewish holiday to become distorted for the sake of commercialism the way Mardi Gras and Cinco de Mayo have. That has already happened somewhat to Chanukkah, and I can definitely see that happening to Purim if bar owners ever discovered it (primary observances of the holiday include drinking, eating, and noise making). I talked about that in another post (

And frankly, it gives me some qualms that a young Catholic friend didn't realize that Passover is a Jewish holiday, because he grew up with Christianized seders in his church. I also remember when I was in law school, the university's Hillel invited a Christian student organization to join them in an interfaith seder, and the Christian group replied, "No thanks, we're having our own interfaith seder."

I don't have any problem with non-Jews showing up at Jewish celebrations and enjoying them, but when they start having their own... well, mostly I scratch my head and wonder what they think they're doing and why they think they're doing it.

Ronnie said...

Maybe celebrate was a poor choice of words. I can certainly appreciate your aversion to turning Purim into another St. Patrick's Day.

My apologies.