I'm Jewish - but here's why Christmas is still my favourite festival

I sign up for the whole kit and caboodle, from the first office party to the last Brussels sprout

Simon Kelner
Tuesday 22 December 2015 17:57
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My sister visited me the other day, and could barely contain her disapproval of my Christmas tree. It’s not that she’s a grinch: it’s just that we’re Jewish, and she takes these things a bit more seriously than I do.

For me, a Christmas tree – or, indeed, any of the other seasonal traditions in which I enthusiastically partake – has no religious significance at all, and yet I am as wholehearted about this celebration as any Christian could be.

I, as a Jew, love Christmas. And I mean really love it. From decorating the house to stuffing the turkey, from wrapping presents to going to midnight mass (yes, I do that too), I enjoy every last minute of it.

Given that I’m not overlaying it with a patina of religious importance, I appreciate it as a cultural festival which also marks a time in the year for reflection, contemplation and gathering up one’s thoughts about what may lie ahead. So, amid the materialism and the consumption and the Downton Abbey specials, I can locate a spiritual dimension to Christmas, but which for me has very little to do with baby Jesus.

I am not, as you have probably deduced by now, a practising Jew. I can’t actually remember the last time I went to a synagogue, and I do not observe the Jewish festivals, but I nevertheless betray the traits of my religious and cultural heritage. I am hopeless at anything practical (I have to find a non-Jewish man to help me if I get a flat tyre), I use the odd word of Yiddish in everyday speech, and, recently, I have found myself pickling jars of cucumbers.

Some time ago, I was toying with the idea of writing a book called What Jews Don’t Do. This would be a compendium of everything with which we Jews are uncomfortable, like, for instance, car maintenance or going to air shows or snorkelling. As I said once to a guide in the Caribbean who tried to get me underwater, “If God had meant Jews to snorkel, he’d have given us big noses”. And traditionally, of course, the thing that we Jews didn’t do was Christmas.

I have a vague recollection from my childhood of celebrating Hanukkah in a rather half-hearted way (my parents were from the very liberal wing of Jewish observance), but as I went to a school in which Jewish pupils were very much in the minority, I think my parents were subject to peer pressure by proxy to celebrate Christmas, at least by the giving and, in my case, the receiving of gifts.

That must be where my interest in, and passion for, Christmas began. I blame the parents. I also got my love of sport from my father, and the fact that this is a time of year when sports fans can gorge themselves, too, would not have hurt. Even now, I think I may prefer Boxing Day to Christmas Day.

Nevertheless, I sign up for the whole kit and caboodle, from the first office party to the last Brussels sprout. But what I’m looking forward to most is some quality time with myself in order to reflect on what has been, personally, an annus pretty horribilis. (I seem to remember saying that last year, too: perhaps it’s a thing which comes from age.) And, in that, I see Christmas as a chance to pause and think, and to focus on self in a way we don’t do, or don’t have the chance to do, for the rest of the year. We don’t need to believe in the Christmas story. We don’t need to believe in God. We all have our private gods with whom we can communicate. And now is as good a time as ever to do that.

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