At Christmastime, most Jewish people come face-to-face with the cultural differences between Jews and Gentiles. Few can ignore the holiday season as they experience the bombardment of holiday media and advertising. To complicate matters even more, their children come home and ask, "How come we don't celebrate Christmas?"
Jewish families must decide how they will deal with "the Christmas problem." Will they choose to participate along with Gentile society, or will they disassociate from all that is happening around them?
Christians can use this special season to share the good news of Messiah in a sensitive manner. Here are some answers to the most frequent questions concerning the Christmas season and the Jewish people.
What does Christmas mean to my Jewish friends?
Usually the primary issue is not, "What does Christmas mean to Jewish people?" but "Who do Jewish people think Jesus is?" There are as many answers to the first question as there are to the second.
Some Jewish people categorize Christmas as strictly a Gentile holiday, with Gentile rites and ceremonies. They cannot see past the merchandising and secular aspects that most people associate with Christmas. Others hold to an "if you can't lick them, join them" attitude and participate in holiday festivities, as long as they do not touch on personal belief.
Jewish people often feel threatened by Christmas for two basic reasons. One is the emphasis on Christ. Some Jewish people feel that public emphasis on Christ breeds anti-Semitism because of past persecutions in his name by so-called Christians. Apart from this threat of latent anti-Semitism, many Jewish people feel threatened by their own disbelief in Christ. They would rather not think about Jesus being the Messiah because they fear it might be true. Fortunately, for some, this confrontation has led to investigation and acceptance of the Christian message.
Gentile Christians who are sensitive to these Jewish feelings about Christmas can help their Jewish friends relate to the holiday more comfortably. As this happens, we hope some will begin to see past the tinsel and the revelry to the deeper, true meaning of Christmas—the gift of God's love and salvation.
Should I send Christmas cards to my Jewish friends?
Probably not. Because Jewish people do not consider Christmas their holiday, most cannot relate meaningfully to a Christmas greeting. On the other hand, quite often Jewish people do send Christmas greetings to their Gentile friends and business associates. Yet even in doing that, they choose nonreligious motifs for their cards.
If you think your Jewish friend, neighbor or business associate would feel "left out" not to receive a greeting of some kind, try a card that expresses only New Year's wishes. Most Jewish people do not attach religious significance to the January New Year's celebration. While they themselves celebrate the Jewish New Year in early autumn, they consider the January 1 New Year equally important in a nonreligious way.
Should I give Christmas gifts to my Jewish friends?
Yes, if you care to. Very few are offended by a gesture of goodwill from a friend. The giving of a gift at Christmas could be a means of witnessing if you let the Jewish recipient know that the gift is your way of expressing joy over what God has done for you. You might say something like, "I know you don't celebrate Christmas, so consider this a late/early Hanukkah present if you'd rather. I just wanted to relate to you in this way by sharing the joy I feel over God's Christmas gift to me—the Messiah."
Should I invite my Jewish friends to our church's Christmas cantata?
It never hurts to ask! At the worst, you will receive a polite refusal. On the other hand, your Jewish friend might be curious to see the inside of a church and find out how Gentiles worship, and the message of the Christmas program might well make a positive spiritual impact. In any case, such an invitation, whether accepted or not, opens the door for possible future spiritual interaction and evangelistic dialogue.
Should I invite my children's Jewish playmates to a Christmas party?
Again, what could it hurt? Jewish people, children in particular, often feel "left out" at Christmas time. No matter how festive or gift-laden their Hanukkah celebration, it does not really compensate sociologically or spiritually for Christmas joys. Because contemporary American Jews are tied to our cultural environment, they find it virtually impossible to disassociate themselves from Christmas, a large segment of this culture, without feeling out of step and somewhat lonely.
Most Jewish children, and adults as well, would probably welcome an invitation to a Christmas party. The exception might be a party centered on the singing of Christmas carols. While most Jewish people don't mind singing secular songs like Jingle Bells and White Christmas, many would feel uncomfortable singing words of worship or adoration of the Christ child.
It would be thoughtful, however, to check with a child's parents before extending such a party invitation. Be sure to tell them what you will be doing and saying. If they would rather not have their child attend, this avoids putting them in the awkward position of having to say no to the child.
Is Hanukkah the Jewish Christmas?
No. In ancient times, Hanukkah was a minor Jewish national holiday commemorating the brave deeds of the Maccabees when they recaptured the Jerusalem Temple for a time before its final destruction. In modern times, Hanukkah has become the Jewish community's substitute for Christmas, a compensation as it were, to fill the Christmas gap with a completely Jewish celebration. Hanukkah fills the gap because it entails both the lighting of festival lights and the exchange of gifts. However it bears no messianic connotation, while Christmas commemorates the coming of the Messiah. The two holidays have nothing in common except that both occur in December and have become the occasion for gift-giving.
What can I do to help bridge the emotional, sociological and spiritual gap between my Jewish friends and myself at Christmastime?
Invite your Jewish friends and neighbors to a family dinner or Christmas festivity. They might welcome such an opportunity in the same way that you would welcome being included in a Jewish feast.