My love-hate relationship with Christmas

Spending weeks on end rehearsing as the front end of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer did nothing to increase my love of the festive season.

Shoppers sit on concrete blocks placed as an extra security measure as they visit the Christmas Market in Manchester, Britain, November 30, 2017 (photo credit: PHIL NOBLE/REUTERS)
Shoppers sit on concrete blocks placed as an extra security measure as they visit the Christmas Market in Manchester, Britain, November 30, 2017
(photo credit: PHIL NOBLE/REUTERS)
It seemed to me at the time that most Jewish children in the Diaspora resented Christmas. Never mind that my youngest met our local postman’s commiserations that he – being Jewish – would be missing out on all the fun, with a defiant, “No, I won’t. Hanukkah is better.” But for most, the Hanukkah miracle was a poor runner-up to the magic of Christmas. We did not have seasonal films with titles like, “Suddenly Last Hanukkah” or world-famous crooners dreaming of a white Hanukkah.
On top of that, when I was a teenager, I was expected to sign up for a holiday job with the Post Office, which meant – in my case – schlepping a heavy bag of cards and small parcels through piles of snow to homes ablaze with lights and garlanded doors, where I might be rewarded with a mince pie and a shilling. After I went down with pneumonia one year I was transferred to an indoor job at the sorting office, which is why I can tell you the postal codes of most London districts to this day.
And if that was not enough to make me dread the approach of Christmas, my father, who liked us to list his job as “actor” but could be more precisely described as an entertainer, liked to write, direct and act in a pantomime every year at Christmas for the local community. Fair enough, until it was made clear that the whole family was expected to take part. Spending weeks on end rehearsing as the front end of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer did nothing to increase my love of the festive season.
So Christmas had a negative image for me, at least until I had children of my own and was beguiled by them into sampling some of the joys it can bring. They were perfectly aware that Christmas was not one of our festivals, but apart from not wanting them to feel deprived of something because of it, I also did not want them to have the same feelings about it as I had at their age. I still imposed the same annual prohibitions: “No, you cannot have a Christmas tree, not even a Hanukkah bush,” like a family we knew who lived in St. John’s Wood (they were American). “Yes, it’s OK for you to be a shepherd in the Nativity play,” though I was silently grateful that he had not been selected to play the part of the baby Jesus. Actually, I later understood that this child had not fully grasped the Christmas vocabulary when he showed me his handiwork from the kindergarten captioned, “Babby Cheeses in the mangul,” presumably the manger.
As a family, we enjoyed the whole Hanukkah/Christmas period and, very occasionally, the first night of Hanukkah would fall on Christmas Day, so there would be presents galore without the necessity of inventing, as our non-Jewish neighbors did, a character who, pulled by a reindeer on a sleigh, miraculously delivered gifts by means of their chimney, to children all over the world. Outings were arranged to look at the lights, which had started to appear toward the end of October, all down Oxford Street and Regent’s Street to Piccadilly Circus. The special Christmas shows were chosen by democratic vote (excepting my veto on anything resembling a pantomime) with “Sooty and his Friends” (a TV-inspired puppet show) coming in favorite years after I was hoping the kids had grown out of it. There would be Christmas concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and the Barbican and television could be relied upon to provide family favorites year after year, with the highlight being the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day, when we would all have a guess about what things she would talk about and what she may leave out.
Then, of course, there was the special Christmas food, some of which would also put in an appearance weeks before the start of the actual festive season. Turkey was de rigueur and, for some reason even Google cannot convincingly explain, so were Brussels sprouts, which were shunned, I have to admit, by my lot.
There was a special privilege in being Jewish in the Diaspora at Christmas time. One could enjoy some of the pleasures without getting involved in the frenzy. Once a year at Passover was enough of that for me. Inevitably, one could not fail to recognize that very few of the Christmas rituals had much to do with the original reasons for believers to celebrate. Even the minority of the British population for whom Christmas retained its spiritual meaning would acknowledge that for most it was a huge commercial project. It was impossible to avoid thoughts of hypocrisy, thoughts not infrequently put into words in the media. My own early reservations nagged at me when I allowed myself to consider the amount of money spent on what had become an annual ritual whose origins seemed incidental. My equilibrium would be restored by the beautiful televised church service from King’s College, Cambridge, the carol singers at the door and the charity boxes reminding us of what the birth of a Jewish teacher in Bethlehem more than two thousand years ago really means for millions of people worldwide. I was even able to feel a part of that when my husband and I joined a tourist group attending Midnight Mass at the Basilica in St. Mark’s Square in Venice. Despite the differences in our religious beliefs and practices, it was impossible not to feel connected to the spirituality evoked in that exquisite cathedral.
Then I came on aliyah to live in the city that is holy to three great religions, but where for most of its citizens Christmas is a non-event. It was very strange for me at first. Sitting in my office at the Jerusalem Foundation on December 25 with the sun streaming through the window, like many other days in the year, felt extremely odd. Bethlehem, where it all started and where the faithful would be gathering to remember it, was only a few kilometers away. My thoughts turned to what most people in the country of my birth would be doing on that day. And then I experienced a new emotion about Christmas – not love, not hate. I actually missed it.■
Readers who would like to know more about Jane’s father’s pantomimes, can read her novel, Sophia’s Version