A few years ago, Joshua Eli Plaut wrote a book titled, A Kosher Christmas. The book’s website, www.akosherchristmas.org, asks: “Do we participate, try to ignore the holiday entirely, or create our own traditions and make the season an enjoyable time?”
Behind this question lurks a long history. Nineteenth-century German Jews quested after assimilation as an antidote to anti-Semitism. A surprising number, including some even more surprising well-known names (Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism; Gershom Scholem, the preeminent scholar of Kabbalah) thought nothing of putting up a Christmas tree in their homes. They also thought nothing of the Christian religion; their tree was a statement that they had arrived, in the language of a bygone day, in “society.” Or simply, that it had become a national holiday, not necessarily one with religious overtones.
Plaut traces the range of what he calls “strategies” that Jews have used to cope with Christmas. Some, like the German Jews, participated in a non-religious kind of Christmas that was more about caste than Christ. Later, others solved the “December dilemma” by raising Hanukkah from a minor to a major holiday, which provided a clearly Jewish-themed alternative. Other options for those who felt marginalized by Christmas celebrations included eating out on Christmas Eve in Chinese restaurants, including kosher ones, most other establishments being closed on that night.
Hence too, the “rituals” of attending “Kung Pao Kosher Comedy,” or spending the day doing tikkun olam, or even, in a mirror image of the “shabbes goy,” working on Christmas so non-Jewish friends could take the day off.
As the twentieth century slid toward a new millennium, Jews increasingly adopted the option of co-opting Christmas through humor, sarcasm, and deliberately emptying the holiday of any religious meaning. Side by side with this strategy, an emphasis on multiculturalism allowed Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and Eid to stand as equals, full of meaning (or not) for its practitioners. In some cases, two holidays have been “combined,” as the celebration of “Chrismukkah,” or—in the ultimate secularization of the season—a celebration of “Festivus” made famous by the TV show Seinfeld. In the midst of all this adopting, rejecting, co-opting, substituting, and allowing, the world at large was treated to the quirkiness of Hanukkah Harry, a Jewish Santa Claus who more or less existed in a parallel universe to that of Christians.
Though the phrase has become a somewhat tired cliché, the “December Dilemma” has not gone away. (Perhaps a new name is in order, though. Maybe the “Winter Worries”?) The contemporary Jewish community is more diverse than ever. All the strategies Plaut describes still function to carve out a Jewish and/or non-religious time in the midst of a season that, though commercialized and secular, also carries overtones of Christianity in its “deep meaning.” In one way or another, Jews are able to have a “kosher Christmas.”
So what’s a nice Jewish boy to do at Yuletide? What can it mean in the 21st century to have a kosher Christmas and resolve the “December Dilemma”? In addition to the various ways Jews have dealt with Christmas that Plaut describes, ISSUES, with a dose of Christmastime chutzpah, advocates yet one more way: celebrating the Jewish birth of Jesus the Jewish Messiah.
No one really knows just when Jesus was born, but one thing is certain: there was no Santa Claus (or Hanukkah Harry), no mistletoe, and no chestnuts roasting over an open fire (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Instead, there was a bris on the eighth day according to the New Testament:
And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (Luke 2:21)
Some time after the bris, there was the pidyon ha-ben ceremony done old-style. Don’t know what that is? Don’t worry! Most Jews today do not perform this ceremony, which in modern times consists of giving a kohen, someone from the priestly tribe, five shekels to “redeem” the firstborn son. This takes place on the 30th day after birth.
And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:22-24)
If that doesn’t sound like any Christmas you’ve heard about, that’s because the birth of Jesus is no longer celebrated as a Jewish event. But if Jesus is the Messiah, maybe instead of Chinese food and comedy, we should think about celebrating his birth in Jewish style. Because if he is the Messiah, that would be the most kosher Christmas of all.