One of my first real jobs was working for one of my mother’s friends, named Morris. Each November Morris’ Christmas store would reopen and I would busy myself with stocking the shelves. I saw to it that the brightly colored balls, the tinsel, the lights and the ceramic angels were all in their places. All right, so it wasn’t year-round employment, but I was only 12 or 13 years old. As for Morris, he spent most of the rest of the year preparing for the two months that his store was open. It was a good little business, and one might think that it would make Morris and me at least a little bit grateful for Christmas. Or maybe it would give a small degree of appreciation for dear old St. Nick. But any admission that anything good could be connected with Christmas would have been against our religion.” We admitted nothing, denied everything.
Morris, my family, and most of the Jewish population of New York endured Christmas with a stoic sort of patience. It tested our Jewish loyalty. If a person were truly Jewish, he or she would do everything possible not to enjoy the holiday.
That is why I made it my personal practice to disdain anything connected with Christmas. I particularly sought to find fault with and reject Christmas carols. I remember how proud I was when my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Bromberg, allowed the Jewish students to bow out of singing the Christmas carols at our glee club’s “Winter Concert”! I’m not sure why she even included the songs in our repertoire, unless it was to avoid offending the few non-Jews who attended our school.
Then I remember one winter when my mother took my two sisters and me on our annual visit to Radio City Music Hall. I had reached the age when I was more interested in watching the Rockettes dance than in seeing Disney’s latest movie. And no other entertainment could compare to the productions Radio City Music Hall put on for their winter extravaganza! After the show, we strolled through Rockefeller Plaza where a group of cherubic children were cheerily singing their Christmas carols. We stopped to listen; after all, those rosy-cheeked carolers were just children. I surprised myself by not humming “Hanukkah, 0 Hanukkah” under my breath, as was my usual custom for “countering” Christmas carols. Instead, I found myself enjoying and even being moved by the music. After being momentarily mesmerized, I snapped back to Jewish reality and realized that I had let down my guard. What guilt surged through me! I felt as though I had come dangerously close to committing ethnic treason.
Christmas poses an awkward situation for many Jews. It doesn’t seem right to feel upset while others are feeling good and celebrating something which is important to them. It is simply not our holiday, yet the decorations and festivities make its presence difficult to ignore. It’s not as though my family tried to avoid Christmas because they were rejecting Christ; they didn’t even think about him. Unfortunately, Yeshua is not generally the focus at Christmas. That fact was made very clear to me one year as I distributed a Jews for Jesus tract entitled “Christmas is a Jewish Holiday” in front of Macy’s in Manhattan.
It was a frosty Tuesday afternoon and New Yorkers were hurrying past me to finish their last minute shopping. I had been standing there only a few minutes when someone shouted, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” I looked to see who had shouted, but most of the people were wearing scarves wrapped tightly around their mouths. I supposed my verbal assailant must have already ducked into the warm entrance of the department store. Then I heard it again: “YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF!” I stopped distributing literature for a moment and turned, but the only person there was a Macy’s Santa Claus waving stiffly and mouthing a very brittle “Ho, ho, ho!”
To my amazement he said it again, this time right to my face: “YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF!” I stared incredulously at this Jewish Santa and said, “What do you mean, I ought to be ashamed. You’re the one dressed up like Santa Claus, not me!” He replied with some very unSanta-like language, which I’m glad no children were present to hear! And then I realized, this man felt it was okay to dress up like Santa Claus because in his mind, Jesus had somehow been surgically removed from Christmas. Jesus out—Santa in. Amazing, how the Savior is considered an intruder at his own birthday party!
If Jesus really has been removed from Christmas, there is absolutely no spiritual value in celebrating the holiday and Jewish believers who opt to ignore it should have little difficulty. But this is not the case, since many believers (both Gentile and Jewish) have pushed past the tinsel and materialism to find meaning in the message of Christmas. There are those who work hard and are successful in “putting Christ back into Christmas.”
Despite that fact, Christmas can be an uncomfortable time for Jewish believers in Jesus. We are subjected to the scrutiny of family and friends who watch to see if we have replaced our menorah with an evergreen wreath…or any other such thing which might mitigate against our Jewishness. This can cause tension! We know that observing Christmas is not commanded in the New Testament, but if celebrating Christmas is something God wants us to do, then most of us would rather endure being called traitors than risk displeasing God.
To celebrate or not to celebrate, that is the question! Or is it? I think the real question is a little deeper. It’s a question of identity. As Messianic Jews, we sometimes feel caught between our own loyalties. If we celebrate Christmas, our relatives will be put off, and those who accuse us of assimilation will be encouraged and have ammunition to show we are departing from our heritage. On the other hand, if we do not celebrate Christmas, we might be separating ourselves from the life of our spiritual community and from something truly uplifting and enjoyable. The “crisis of Christmas” is accentuated in homes where a Jewish believer has a Gentile Christian spouse to whom Christmas is important for both religious and cultural reasons.
For many of us, the Christmas crisis is just the tip of the iceberg, which, at a deeper level, strikes at the very core of our identity as Jewish Christians. How many of us feel caught between Hanukkah and Christmas, Passover and Easter—between being Jewish and following Jesus? But the dilemma is false. After all, who has required that we choose one over the other? God? I don’t think so. Those who would make us choose are essentially denying the Jewishness of Christianity.
All too often, Jewish people define their identity by negation—trying to prove who they are by what they don’t do, don’t believe, and don’t want to know. “I am Jewish because…I do not celebrate Christmas or Easter and because I do not believe in Christ.” As if negating things thought to pertain to Jesus makes us Jewish! This false notion of identity keeps many among our families and friends from considering Christ.
The great Talmudist Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik illustrated the point of identity through negation when he made reference to a conversation with a certain German Rabbi. The German Rabbi asked, “What do I have in common with non-religious Polish Jews?” Rabbi Soloveitchik replied, “Hitler!”1
Must we perpetually define ourselves by reminding one another of our common enemies? Are we to be a people held together by fear and contempt of others? Could the Rav not have answered “God” rather than “Hitler”? It is the God of Israel and our relationship to him which binds us together as Jews. God himself is our source of Jewish identity. Without God our Jewishness—whether defined culturally, racially or religiously—is a farce!
There is a corollary to this. If we believe in God, being Jewish is a matter of divine importance. How can we be ambivalent or uncaring about our Jewish identity if we take our relationship to God seriously? Our being Jewish is his idea, not ours! God wants us to be positive about our Jewish identity. Still, this identity can be difficult to articulate. Moishe Rosen explains it in an interesting way.
Every human being has an internal identifactory. That’s an original term which Moishe coined. (Sometimes he finds the English language lacking in words to express his ideas!) The identifactory is located somewhere between the mind and heart and it determines who you are and what you think about yourself. The identifactory is a complex unit; there are many factors which go into determining an identity. It would be a totally confusing process except for the built-in, self- prioritizing index which keeps the identifactory in an understandable order.
The index establishes a logical order which rejects any factors that do not fit properly into the identifactory. We know our species—we are human beings. If someone calls us “snake,” that “factor” will be rejected. Reptiles simply have no place on our index. Most of us are fairly clear on whether we are male or female. But there are more complex factors. I am male and have parents, therefore I am a son. I have two children, which makes me a father. These factors are part of my identity. So is being Jewish! This is a part of what makes me…me! I also believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and that Yeshua is God’s Son and my personal Savior.
If external sources insist that I am a reptile, I won’t accept it because it mitigates against the self-concept generated in my identifactory. Likewise, I will not give credence to those who say I’m not Jewish, nor will I believe anyone who tells me that Jesus is not my Savior. I will dismiss such disinformation as untrue because it is not part of who I am. My identifactory has constructed my self-concept, and the handy index keeps my priorities from becoming unsettled.
What causes “identity confusion” is the fact that so many people have relegated God to a low priority, if they allow him any priority at all! Their self-prioritizing index is malfunctioning; God must be primary in order for all the other elements of our self-concept to fall into place. But “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
Even when our priorities are straight, there is another key to making certain the identifactory runs smoothly. I’m talking about the integrating oil. Without it, the individual parts, which at times seem disparate, would smash and crash into one another, leaving the entire identifactory inoperative. How can I be both father and son? How can I be Jewish and believe in Jesus? The way I integrate these seemingly opposing factors depends on whether or not my identifactory is operating with a full measure of integrating oil. The oil which enables integration is the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would teach them “all things” (John 14:26, 1 John 2:27).
It is the work of the Holy Spirit to make peace in our souls and harmonize the many elements of our lives. The Holy Spirit makes it evident to us that being Jewish and believing in Jesus go hand in hand. For that matter, the Scriptures teach that God wants the Jewish people and all people to believe in Yeshua.
Once our “basic identity” is intact, we can iron out our approach to the holiday season. Whether we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, both or neither does not change the fact that we are Jewish people who love Jesus. There is tremendous liberty with numerous possibilities to express our identities when the Lord has top priority in our identifactory index.
We must guard ourselves lest we fall into the trap of identity by negation, which can only lead to a distorted image of ourselves and our Jewishness. We do not become “more Jewish” by not celebrating Christmas. If a Messianic Jew chooses to celebrate it, Christmas is a Jewish holiday inasmuch as it is a Jew celebrating it. If you would ascribe some identity to my car, it would be a Jewish car because it is mine and I am a Jew. And the trash that is picked up from my house every Wednesday is Jewish trash since it is from a Jewish house. But Christmas is not trash. It is a terrific opportunity to invite people to a birthday party with You-Know-Who as the guest of honor. Or at least it can be that kind of an opportunity if you want it to be.
As Jewish Christians, we must be certain our identifactory is in good working order so that when we choose which holidays to observe, our choices are based on good and healthy reasons. We have to face the fact that it is not merely cultural trappings which turn many Jewish people off to Christmas. It is the prejudgment that Jesus is not “for the Jews,” and even when he seems to be obscured by Santa, the remotest hint of celebrating his birth is unpalatable to our people. Those of us who choose not to celebrate Christmas are free to abstain. We just need to make certain it is not because we have succumbed to pressure to hide our feelings about the Messiah. The Scriptures don’t mention Christmas specifically, but they do give us guidelines for grappling with the “crisis of Christmas” and just about any other holiday which might concern us. The Apostle Paul wrote:
One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God
This passage is speaking about Israel’s feasts. If we take some liberty in our interpretation and extend it to include Christmas, it becomes clear that each believer may choose whether or not to celebrate Christmas. Those of us who choose not to should not feel guilty; we should only be careful not to stand in judgment of those Jewish and Gentile believers who do choose to honor the Lord on December 25th. Paul affirms this principle again in writing to the believers in Colossae:
Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day- things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ
In light of these passages, it is perfectly legitimate for a Jewish believer to celebrate Christmas if he or she wants to; celebrating can be especially meaningful when Yeshua is the focus of worship and the Jewishness of his birth is emphasized. But some of the mishpochah will never feel comfortable celebrating Christmas; the stigma of the holiday is simply too much to bear. They will choose to let December 25th pass quietly, and they have every right to do so. If you are such a person, be sure to explain to your pastor how and why you feel the way you do; you’re likely to find a sympathetic ear. At the same time, try to understand why your fellow congregants appreciate the holiday, and be happy for them.
Another way to cure the crisis of Christmas is by celebrating Hanukkah as well. The Feast of Lights is a wonderful story of God’s faithfulness to his people. Why not invite some Gentile Christian friends over to sample your homemade latkes and watch you light Hanukkah candles? This will enrich their own holiday celebrations. After all, Yeshua is the Light of the world!
You’re not alone if you have experienced a bit of an identity crisis each December. But this year can be different—the Hanukkah/ Christmas season can become a special time of worship for you and your family. Just be honest with God, with your fellow Jewish and Gentile believers, and most of all be honest with yourself as to how you feel most comfortable in celebrating the December holidays—even if it means doing nothing at all! New life in Yeshua is more than holiday celebrations. “For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).
- Walter Wurzburger, “Cooperation with Non-Orthodox Jews,” Tradition, Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer 1986, p. 35 quotes from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Hamesh Derashot, p. 94.