It is a question I have struggled with for years.
I proudly identify as a Jewish person. I attend a Conservative synagogue on the High Holidays, keep kosher in my house and recite the Shabbat prayers on Friday night. I attended Jewish day school as a child and continue to speak Hebrew (albeit not well).
But there are some things I do that others would argue makes me “less Jewish.” I eat seafood and nonkosher meat when I am outside my home. I use technology on Shabbat. And I absolutely love Christmas.
As a child, my mother raised me to be a proud Jew by instilling Jewish traditions and values in our home. My parents taught my sisters and me about our Jewish identity and the importance of family.
But regardless of their efforts to diminish my interest in Christmas, that forbidden season always spiked my interest. As my family and I would drive home each Friday night from my grandparents’ house, I was mesmerized by the houses meticulously decorated with Christmas lights. I would often beg my parents to take the long route home so we could see more lights, my little face pushed up so close against the car’s window that I would leave a foggy impression.
But as I grew older, the guilt I felt that I was cheating on my religion escalated. Every holiday season, without fail, the haunting question that seems to resurface in my head appears: Does loving Christmas make me less Jewish?
I sought advice from the rebbetzin of Chabad of London, Ontario, the city of my alma mater. When I studied at Western University for my undergraduate degree, I attended Chabad every week for Shabbat dinners. I grew incredibly close with the rabbi’s family, and Nechamie became a strong Jewish figure in my life.
I am fortunate to have an open and safe line of communication with the rebbetzin, so whenever I have a question about Judaism, Nechamie is the person I call. After speaking on FaceTime during one of our weekly calls, I disclosed the guilt I felt for loving Christmas.
“I don’t want to celebrate Christmas or to not be Jewish, but there is just something about the holiday that fascinates me,” I told her.
She had heard this before. In Canada, Jews make up about 1% of the population. Christmas is overwhelmingly present.
Nechamie encouraged me to ask myself why I am interested in Christmas.
I pondered over this simple question at length. Why do I love Christmas? Do I love the “commercial” aspects of Christmas, like the lights, music and movies? Yes. But is that what I love most about the holiday?
I went on a quest to understand why others around me love Christmas in hopes it would help me understand my personal connection to the holiday. I asked some non-Jewish friends who celebrate Christmas about their favorite part. Many of their answers revolved around the same theme — family. While the decorations, music, holiday treats and time off work are well-loved, the meals that families share or traditions they uphold are what people love the most about the holiday.
When I watch Christmas movies, I am mesmerized by the families wearing matching pajamas and opening gifts on Christmas mornings or the elaborate meals shared with loved ones at a full table. The memories I witness these characters making and the laughter heard fills me with such warmth.
Familial gatherings and traditions happen to be at the root of the Jewish religion as well. In Judaism, taking responsibility for your family members is a way of honoring God. So it is unsurprising that so many of the traditions instilled in me as a child were family oriented.
Every year, my family has large Hanukkah dinners with over 30 family members. On Passover, we rent an event space and arrange five tables in a U-shape to accommodate our large family for the Seder. We sing songs, laugh and enjoy elaborate meals. I realized these traditions my family holds aren’t so different from Christmas.
So how can loving a holiday that is so similar to Jewish beliefs make me less Jewish? Maybe loving Christmas can bring me closer to my Jewish identity.
It sounds crazy, I know. But what even makes a person Jewish? Is it something you are born with and forever hold, or is it the actions you perform that define your identity?
A Jew who has transgressed is still a Jew, the Talmud reminds us, meaning the acts we perform do not determine how “Jewish” we are. In Judaism, if your mother is Jewish, then you are Jewish. Whether you observe Shabbat, eat seafood or celebrate Christmas doesn’t make you less Jewish. But the guilt associated with these acts is difficult for some to cope with.
As this trying year comes to an end, I remind myself to have self compassion and if engaging in the Christmas spirit brings me happiness, then I’ll allow myself that joy. Because a Jew celebrating Christmas helps to define my identity.