I am troubled by the commercialism that surrounds the commemoration of Yeshua’s birth. If tinsel, toys, candy canes, artificial snow and shopping for gifts are the only components of the holiday season, perhaps Dr. Seuss’ legendary Grinch, who tried to steal Christmas, was doing right after all. If our celebration of the Savior’s birth does nothing to change our hearts and lives, we can deck the halls as much as we want, but our Christmas festivities will remain hollow.
Since I became a believer in Yeshua, however, Christmas has taken on new meaning for me. It has become a season of wonder and light! I cannot imagine anything greater than the Almighty taking on human flesh and dwelling among us as Emmanuel, God with us.
I remember growing up in New York and walking home from school just before the Christmas holidays. The snow would crunch pleasantly under my feet. My toes, fingers and nose would tingle from the cold, and in many apartment windows I would see lights, tinsel and gaily decorated trees.
As Christmas approached it was easy to know the Jewish homes from the Gentile homes. Most of the Jewish windows were unlit. Yet because the Hanukkah season coincides with Christmas, occasionally a Jewish window displayed a menorah or a Happy Hanukkah sign. And in contrast to the reds, greens and golds of Christmas, a few Jewish people festooned their windows with blue and white lights (the colors of the Israeli flag).
As a child I loved Hanukkah—the smell of my mother’s potato latkes, the traditional prayers at the menorah and the story of the brave Maccabees. They were heroes I could respect. They had defied and defeated Antiochus, the Syrian dictator, and had restored and rededicated the Holy Temple. I thought it would be wonderful to have principles important enough to fight for as the Maccabees had done. The miracles, wonders and triumphs of the Hanukkah story captured my young heart and my imagination. Here was a holiday for us Jews to celebrate with pride. On the other hand, I felt that Christmas was just a holiday about a baby and had nothing to do with Jewishness.
As a Jew, I always felt awkward around Christmas time, almost embarrassed. Every year my teachers would dig out the Christmas carols and make us all sing them. I felt much more comfortable with Jingle Bells” than “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It made no sense to me that Gentiles would want to sing about Bethlehem, because it was a Jewish place.
I saw everyone busy celebrating the birth of a baby with a frenzy of spending, feasting and drinking. There were displays in Macy’s windows, bargains galore, and through it all the shopkeepers seemed to be the only ones with smiles on their faces. That baby was supposed to be the Prince of Peace, yet people’s lives still seemed fragmented and unsettled.
One of my school chums used to gloat that he had the best of both worlds (or so he thought). His dad was Jewish and his mom was Gentile, so he got to celebrate Hanukkah with its eight days of presents and also have chubby old Santa supposedly squeeze down his chimney with piles of toys on Christmas Eve. Somehow that never seemed right to me, but I never envied him. I couldn’t relate to Christmas at all. There was no peace in the world, so how could Jesus be the promised Messiah who was to bring peace?
Many years later I left the cold and snows of New York winters to seek my fortune in sunny southern California. To my amusement, the stores in Los Angeles displayed Christmas trees laden with artificial snow and icicles—in 80-degree weather! Salvation Army people rang their bells and shoppers were busy buying gifts. Except for the mild weather and the palm trees, to me the holiday bustle seemed the same as in New York and anything but peaceful.
I wasn’t really searching for anything then, except perhaps some independence from my parents. I wasn’t particularly searching for peace, although I didn’t really feel peaceful inside. (Ironically the Hebrew name my parents gave me as a baby is Shlomo, derived from the Hebrew word shalom, which means peace. Perhaps they named me that in the hope that I would experience true shalom in my life.)
Holidays can be depressing for a newcomer who doesn’t know very many people, so I was grateful for some new friends I met who invited me to spend Christmas with them. They were Jews for Jesus. So what if they were a bit on the meshuggeh (crazy) side? Jews who believed in Jesus were not exactly in the mainstream of Jewish thought, but these people were nice, and I was happy to be with them.
There was no tree nor many Christmas decorations in the Goldstein home, but I didn’t miss them. There was a lot of wonderful food and time to shmooze, but more than that, their house seemed filled with peace and laughter. There was something different about these people that I couldn’t understand. They showed me a lot of love. I didn’t think it had anything to do with Jesus. I kept trying to figure it out, and the harder I tried, the less sense it made.
These friends told me that I was trying to understand spiritual things by only using my head, and God wanted to deal with my heart. They opened the Scriptures to Isaiah 9:6: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
They said, “Steve, Yeshua claimed to be all that, and you need to ask God if it is really true. Yeshua can be the Prince of Peace for you if you’ll let Him.”
Those words stayed with me. I started to read the Bible and gradually became convinced of the messiahship of Jesus. Then my heart was filled with turmoil. I feared my family’s reaction, yet I felt so drawn to Yeshua! As I read the New Testament, I was in for many surprises. I learned that Jesus was a Jew who had preached and spoken to my people from a Jewish frame of reference. Now He was speaking to me through the pages of Scripture, and my heart began to respond.
The evidence for His claims was so overwhelming, and my need for Him was so great. How do you find out that you have dirt on your face? By looking in a mirror, of course! I saw through the mirror of God’s Word that I needed some cleansing. I needed a covering for my sins, and Yeshua had provided it. Gratefully I accepted God’s wonderful gift of salvation.
Now I celebrate Yeshua’s birth as a Jewish believer. No, I still don’t have a decorated tree and tinsel in my home. While trees are beautiful and decorations are lovely, they are not part of my emotional frame of reference, and I feel the freedom to celebrate Yeshua’s coming in other ways. I give gifts happily to those I love as a reflection of Messiah Yeshua, God’s greatest gift.
God gave my people the Law to show us our sin and the impossibility of pleasing Him in our own strength. He gave us the prophets so that there would be no confusion about the Deliverer and how we would recognize Him. And He gave us the very best out of heaven—His own Son to redeem our lives and give us peace.
At Christmas I am saddened for those who see it only as tinsel and wrapping paper, so easily tossed aside. As a Jew for Jesus, I work with joy to proclaim the message of Yeshua because I remember the discord in my own heart before I called Him Lord. Now with countless other Jewish and Gentile believers, I celebrate the birth of the Sar Shalom, Prince of Peace, who, though He was rich, for our sakes became poor, that we might become spiritually rich in Him (see 2 Corinthians 8:9). As I contemplate this, for me it truly is a season of wonder and light.