Hanukkah came early this year, so now that it’s over I can come clean about something that secular Jews largely keep to ourselves: It blows. A boring, theologically insignificant holiday, it is at most, even in the eyes of its sincere supporters, one day of semi-eager fried potato consumption followed by seven more of half-hearted remembering it’s there. There’s not a Jew in America who doesn’t know that it’s aping a far better holiday it has no hope of matching.
Christmas, though. Christmas is magic. Not your yule log and tree-trimming and gingerbread Christmas; I mean the one that’s more lo mein than holiday ham, more George Lucas than Jimmy Stewart.
Mom and Dad never explicitly stated that on Christmas we’d get Chinese delivery and watch movies, but it kept happening, and I liked it, so it happened some more. It wasn’t until I moved back to New York after college that someone asked me, “What are you doing for Christmas,” with the implication that, as a Jew, I had plans worth sharing. And the more people asked, the more I realized that I had, in fact, developed a Christmas ritual of near-Talmudic precision.
So here is what I do. Christmas Eve is always in Manhattan with any New York expat friends that are back home for the holidays. For the past few years we've convened at Legend, a very good Sichuan restaurant in Chelsea that makes excellent Chongqing chicken, stir-fried eggplant, and scallion pancakes. I go home after and usually watch the Nightmare Before Christmas, which I've always appreciated for affirming without question that Halloween is a superior holiday to anything that occurs in December.
The next day I go to Flushing, a Chinatown in Queens, and eat fresh dumplings at the Golden Shopping Mall, or oily dim sum at Asian Jewels. I get a massage at the little place on the upper floor of the New World Mall. I go home again, with some egg custard tarts for later, and tune in to Star Trek or whatever marathon is re-running and not full of Christmas cheer.
It’s a wonderful time. Everyone who joins me loves it. But it wasn’t always this easy.
For a culture that values community so heavily, Jews whittle down the end of the Gregorian year painfully alone. Hanukkah’s not an especially communal celebration, and as a Jewish kid in Queens with no Jewish friends, the holidays were invariably lonely. There are only so many spins of the dreidel that your gentile buddies will tolerate for waxy chocolate coins. No one is ever curious to see what a menorah-lighting looks like.
The loneliness didn’t pass quickly; it takes eight days to make it through Hanukkah, but more like 30 to get past Christmas. So in my childhood Decembers I watched a lot of TV, and insofar as television informs a young American kid’s view of the world (which is to say: completely), it became obvious that Christmas had no place for people like me.
There were no yarmulkes or Star of David necklaces in the background shots of TV's sugarplum Christmas. Every family I grew up with—the Banks, the Winslows, even the Sheffields, with their surrogate Jewish mother Fran Drescher—learned lessons about freely opening their doors and hearts to others, all in the spirit of Christmas, with nary a Jew in sight. (The only exception that comes to mind is Friends, and it's a half-hearted one.)
To look at the world in December and not celebrate Christmas is to hear a thousand whispers a day that all say the same thing: Look at this. Do not look away. But don't touch. You can't help but see Christmas emblems everywhere you go. You hear carols on every commercial. A thousand reminders of polite refusal: No, this is not for you.
You wonder what it’s like to be so excited about Santa’s arrival that you can’t fall asleep. How other people must look forward so very much to this one magical day. Why the gift exchanges in film and photographs seem so much more exotic than any you’ve participated in yourself. Why no one ever seems to feel alone.
It didn’t get better as I grew older. Yes, Christmas is more inclusive than ever, but despite the best of goodly intentions, I can’t help but feel like it’s still not for me. Even now, the weeks leading up to Christmas remain the time when friends and families gather together and shut their doors behind them. I am not invited in, and even if I was, there’s too much about the holiday I just don’t understand. It’s hard to learn new holiday lessons and forget the old ones you’ve been taught since childhood.
But something happens when the world closes up and turns inward: You realize that the spaces in between become fully open to you. For all of December, Christmas spills into the streets, but Christmas Day is when Jews take back our neighborhoods. We eat Chinese food and go to the movies, not just because the rest of the world is locked away from us, but because doing so is a quiet act of defiance towards a holiday that still, for all its efforts to overrun the world, excludes us.
The streets of New York are almost empty on Christmas, and on the rare occasions it snows, I make sure to crunch fresh powder beneath my feet in the middle of the street. After a melancholy month passing Santas on every storefront and lamp post, artifacts of a holiday that doesn’t belong to me, I feel ready to ignore them. The people they’re meant for are all inside now, and in their absence I’m finally free to look away.
The funny thing now is how many people want to join me. When I share my holiday plans with Christian friends these days, they lament about their family drama and travel stress and pressure to buy everyone perfect gifts. They tell me how much they envy me, so I respond that they’re more than welcome to join, because everyone has a place at my private holiday.
My Christmas involves no disappointment because it has no such high expectations. The restaurants will be open and the food will be good and the films will be the same I’ve watched dozens of times before. The only surprises are pleasant ones—an especially nice mapo tofu perhaps, or the joy of introducing someone new, who also has nowhere else to go on Christmas, to some of my favorite places in the world.
Though I can't help but notice that my Christmas is changing around me. Somewhere along the way, "Jewish Christmas" (a meaningless phrase when I was growing up) went from being a matter of course—something Jews just did—to a bona fide cultural phenomenon to be discussed, interrogated, and re-blogged. Nowadays, Jews publicly try to out-Jew each others' plans. Restaurants throw Jewish Christmas-themed meals. I see more and more non-Jews sitting down near me for moo shoo. It's all very heartening to see, but I can't help but wonder if all the hubbub is setting up the very expectations and cultural baggage I'm trying to avoid.
When Jeff Orlick started Woks and Lox in 2011, it was with the explicit purpose of "giving lonely Jews something to do" on Christmas Eve in New York. Orlick, a Queens food and culture advocate and event organizer, co-produced Woks and Lox for three years, bringing young Jewish and Asian New Yorkers together for a night-long party that grew in scale year over year.
But Orlick and his partners called it quits in 2013. Among other reasons—he usually works on Christmas, and putting on a food event during the holidays is no easy feat—he muses, "Now [something like Wox and Lox] isn't really needed. There are so many other things for Jews to do." He points out that New York restaurants have carried the Jewish Christmas torch: the nouveau deli Mile End, the Queens Kickshaw cafe, and Brooklyn's year-round tongue-in-cheek Shalom Japan. And that's just in New York. Over in Seattle, writer Naomi Tomky goes so far as to ask: "Is the tradition of 'Jewish Christmas' being co-opted by gentiles?"
I worry about the effect all this attention has on the purity of the Jewish Christmas spirit. Should I be concerned with excluding people from my Christmas the way I’ve been excluded from others’? Will I be kvetching in a few years about Jewish Christmas getting too monetized?
It would be a sad irony if my Christmas were to follow in Hanukkah’s footsteps: a small yet earnest celebration of defiance transmuted into cheap foil-wrapped coins. It’s a tricky thing to preserve and value a tradition without burdening it with meaning or sabotaging it with misplaced ambition.
But the power to control it, at least, is up to Jews like me. It’s our holiday to lose.