I once worked at a social service agency filled with people who truly cared about humanity and toiled diligently for small pay to understand and help everyone.
One December I was chatting with the boss, a smart and sympathetic woman who seemed unusually harassed. I asked her why and she said, “Oh, you know, it’s the Christmas shopping.”
To which I replied: “No, I don‘t know. I have never been Christmas shopping in my life.” Taking a sip of coffee to better digest this unexpected response, she said “Well then, ask you wife. She does it for you.” “Well, no,” I replied. “She doesn’t.” That stopped her. I might just as well have revealed that a UFO had deposited me for work that day and my green antennas had been retracted so as not to frighten anyone.
This caring, open-minded individual never had considered that there was someone who did not share the joy of Christmas. But it is true. Not only have I never Christmas shopped, but there had never been a Christmas tree in my house and as a kid, I never sat on Santa’s lap or listened for reindeer on the roof.
To me, watching the glow, fuss and joy of Christmas is like an anthropologist observing the rituals of some exotic tribe he lives among but can never be fully part of. I can reach an exquisite intellectual understanding of the entire event, but from a distance. All this puts me in one of America’s most exclusive minorities – the approximately 5% of us that does not celebrate Christmas.
To me it has always been a holiday for others, a religious festival that had nothing to with my background. I grew up Jewish, in a household only a decade removed from the Holocaust. Maintaining a distinct Jewish identity was important to my family, and Christmas, which I was taught and still believe is a religious holiday, was not part of it. We also did not celebrate Easter, Diwali or Ramadan.
Dad was self-employed, so the only thing December 25th meant was that he could not go to work because there was no one out there to work with. Instead, we watched TV and later on, when theaters began to open in Christmas Day, went to a movie.
There were Christmas trees in the classrooms of my public elementary school, and we sang “Silent Night” in music classes and assemblies. But I always choked on the words “Christ, the savior is born,” remaining silent or changing them to “Christ your savior.”
Things have changed since my youth. Society has begun to understand that there are folks like me for whom all the fuss and frolic surrounding Christmas is vaguely threatening. Thus was born “Happy holidays,” “holiday trees” and “Winter Break,” a well as an undue public emphasis on Chanukah, a minor Jewish holiday.
It also spawned worries by a small portion of the 95% celebrating Dec. 25th that there is a war on Christmas. Worrying about that is like being concerned that El Salvador might successfully invade Texas, never mind the entire U.S. Christmas is too much a part of the American culture to be threatened by pinpricks.
As for putting menorahs next to crèches in public displays, I find that insulting, frankly. It attempts to co-opt me into something I’m not part of. Christmas is a legitimate strand in the strong weave of American culture, and as such, deserves the respect of us all, just as do the smaller strands of the Jewish holiday of Passover and the Muslim’s Ramadan. If we want to acknowledge Jews in the public square, having shopping centers create April displays of matzos, the unleavened bread eaten during Passover, would be much more appropriate then including “Draidel, Draidel, Draidel” in “Holiday Concerts.”
Meanwhile, I will continue to listen for “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls” as I go about my business over the next several days, happy for all of you who find those songs to be joyful. I will even wish you a merry Christmas. But I hope you will remember that some of us do not share in the merriment. And that we did not arrive on UFOs.
Lake Effect essayist Avrum Lank was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Milwaukee Sentinel and Journal Sentinel for more than three decades. He lives in in Whitefish Bay and his freelance work has appeared in a variety of publications.