No matter our stage in life, one is seldom comfortable feeling left out. Unfortunately, many American Jews experience exactly that feeling each year as Christmas approaches. The term “December Dilemma” is used to describe the tension many Jews feel sitting on the sidelines, unable to fully enjoy or participate in the distinctly Christian themes and activities occurring all around.
One contemporary Jewish author, Sara Y. Rigler, writes:
“I grew up as a strongly identified Jew in Christian America. This posed few problems ten and a half months a year. But every November, when the Xmas decorations started to go up, so did my defenses. The annual Xmas concert in my public school was a real identity crisis for me. Should I refuse to participate? Should I go up on the stage with the rest of my class and just mouth the words of the Christmas carols? Should I sing, but go silent every time we came to the ‘J’ word?
“The concerts ended with elementary school, but not my sense of alienation every December. I felt like I was milling around in a party to which I was not invited. Ours was the only house on our street without decorations. Every department store Santa and every brilliantly lit tree, as well as the avalanche of Xmas cards from my Christian (and Jewish!) friends only accentuated my sense of not belonging.”
To some degree, most American Jews can relate to that writer’s experiences. The challenge we face is finding the best way to deal with this reality. First and foremost, we must know why we feel such a sense of discomfort as the Christmas season nears. The answer is clear: as Jews, we simply cannot fully participate in all aspects of a season dominated by Christian religious themes. As such, we must find a way to deal with our inability to fully participate in our surrounding culture for about a month each year.
Four approaches readily come to mind:
* Move to Israel and live in a thoroughly Jewish environment, where no Jew will ever feel left out. While this may be an immediate option for some, it is not one the majority of American Jews are yet willing to entertain.
* Seek to eliminate all overtly Christian aspects of the holiday season. Although there are several groups trying to do this, to me, forcing Christianity out of the Christmas season seems both quite odd and unfair to our fellow citizens (the majority) who thoroughly enjoy this time of the year. Also, the hostility arising from such a move would be far more problematic to the American Jewish community than any lonely feelings brought on by the December Dilemma.
* Try to level the playing field by demanding absolutely equal “air time” to all things Jewish during the Christmas season. This would be done by forcing Jewish symbols, holiday trappings, and music to appear and be heard wherever and whenever Christmas ones are displayed and heard. When one considers this approach, it does not take long to realize how unrealistic it is. It is rather far-fetched to have a Charlie Brown Chanukah special on TV right after the Christmas one, or hearing a Chanukah-themed song right after “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” while shopping, and I seriously doubt we can expect to see Chanukah-themed Coca Cola bottles displayed right next to the ones with Santa on them any time soon. (Even if such a plan were realistic, I think it is pretty clear it would be unfair imposing Jewish holiday themes on the majority of our fellow citizens, and extremely unwise for American Jewry to push for such an idea.)
*Live authentic, active, and fulfilling Jewish lives. If our days, homes, and routines are full of Judaism, we will not feel much in the way of a vacuum each year when December rolls around. This approach will more than compensate for those brief seasonal experiences we as Jews cannot participate in.
Regarding this last approach, one non-Jewish writer, Terry Mattingly, has this to say: “A child in a family that enjoys Jewish life and faith is less likely to crave a Christmas tree…. But if a family’s life is dominated by television, pop music, movies, shopping and other activities that have little or nothing to do with their faith, then it will probably feel tension during these media-mad and highly secularized holidays.”
If we opt for the fourth approach in dealing with the December Dilemma, I am sure all Jews will feel far less seasonal angst each year. Living actively Jewish lives will not only enrich our beings, it will also enable us to view Judaism as a vibrant life-enhancing force instead of an aspect of our heritage that just causes us to feel like outsiders.
Rabbi Akiva and Layala Males are enjoying Chanukah in Harrisburg, PA.