Kyle Broflovski, the resident Jew in the South Park crew, famously sang about being excluded from Christmas festivities:
Cos there’s something wrong with me My people don’t believe in Jesus Christ’s divinity I’m a Jew, a lonely Jew on Christmas
But that ditty aired nearly two decades ago during South Park’s first season, and it’s possible the lament wouldn’t resonate quite the same today.
The reality is many Jews love celebrating Christmas—or at least certain traditions—and we get swept up in the holiday cheer without losing our faith.
Christmas has long been stereotyped as an event that simultaneously leaves Jews out in the cold while making their blood boil.
It’s wrongly assumed that Jews celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ by grumbling about our ears ringing with “Jingle Bells,” protesting crèche displays on public property, and congregating in movie theaters while enjoying our beloved Chinese food.
“I think Jews have had a fascination with the Christmas aesthetic,” Tamara Wolfson, a cantorial student at Hebrew Union College (HUC), told The Daily Beast. “Think of the Christmas songs written by Jews, like [Russian Jewish immigrant Irving Berlin’s] ‘White Christmas.’”
Wolfson said she looks forward to the holiday season because she loves Christmas songs. “I listen to Christmas music all the time, as soon as it’s considered acceptable after Thanksgiving,” she said. “I love me some scented candles and peppermint hot cocoa… If you walk into my apartment, it will smell like Christmas. That may be odd for some people walking into an observant Jew’s home.”
Going to see The Nutcracker as a child was the “gateway drug” to Christmas for Reyzl Geselowitz, who has a master’s degree in Jewish education, teaches in a Jewish day school, and serves on the board of her synagogue in Washington Heights.
“From the time I was young, I loved listening to Christmas music, from the easy listening stuff in Starbucks all the way through Latin hymns,” Geselowitz said.
While studying at Harvard University, Geselowitz looked forward to attending the annual Christmas carol service at Memorial Church, whose program is filled with hardcore hymns composed by Bach and others who wrote music well before the U.S. was even a country.
It’s not just the catchy and pretty secular pop songs, like ‘Jingle Bell Rocks’ or ‘Santa Baby.’ She also loved that living with Christian roommates gave her the chance to have a Christmas tree in her dorm.
“They were like, ‘We want to put up a Christmas tree in our common room, but we didn’t want it to be uncomfortable,’ and I said, ‘Are you kidding? Let’s put it up and leave it up until February.’”
Geselowitz said she actually loves Christmas not in spite of, but because of its religious roots. While she made it clear that she does not see herself as celebrating Christmas, she “really appreciates the religious aspect of the holiday without believing in it myself.”
By her own description, it is “slightly weird about how much I like Christmas. It’s decidedly not ‘Oh, the Christmas tree, the stockings, it’s not religious.’ I love that it’s a religious holiday, and I appreciate it more than I should for someone who is not a member of the religion. I love the Latin religious carols, the nativity scenes.”
With Christmas in the U.S. so associated with shopping, festive meals, and decorations, it can be easy to forget or overlook the fact that it is an undoubtedly Christian holiday.
Yet, some people who identify as Jewish celebrate the holiday because they come from interfaith families.
Celebrating Christmas is a way to pay tribute and feel connected to the Christian side of their families, without doing more religious activities, like going to church with them.
According to a 2013 Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, since 2000 58 percent of American Jews who have gotten married have chosen a spouse who is not Jewish.
Becky Palley comes from an interfaith family and grew up going to Hebrew school and having a bat mitzvah, but also celebrating Christmas.
Palley’s mother converted to Judaism, her father’s religion, though she noted he grew up with a Christmas tree, too. Christmas “was just a nice family holiday” to Palley, which she said never interfered with her identity as a Jew.
“I associate it almost as Thanksgiving,” she said. “It’s another holiday where my family is together. We have good food and spend good time together. I never felt guilty because it was never religious at all…. I actually go to Rosh Hashanah services and Yom Kippur services. I believe in that religiously. That’s what I’m focusing on 99 percent of the year as opposed to this one holiday.”
In fact, Palley described Christmas as seeming more like an “American holiday” because “it’s everywhere; you have school off; you have the commercials. It just felt normal.”
“For me, Christmas is about pure hedonism, which is something I can always get on board with,” Eleanor Margolis, a London writer at the New Statesman (and the columnist behind “Lez Miserables”), told The Daily Beast in an email. “It’s nothing to do with religion, or ‘hope’; it’s mostly just an excuse to stuff my face with my mum’s roast potatoes.”
Margolis felt her “family actually does Christmas in quite a Jewish way” because it is “an entire day of heightened emotions, screaming at each other and eating.”
“Plus, we’ve always made a bit of a joke about the fact we celebrate it,” Margolis added. “One of my dad’s favorite things to do, this time of year, is to come in from the cold, post-shopping trip, and declare, ‘The goyim are going MAD out there.’”
Her sister, Ruth, also said in an email that “Christmas dinner with my family is our only slight ode to our Jewishness: the starter is almost always my mum’s homemade chopped liver served with Matzo.”
Ruth, who is also a writer, lives in Brooklyn, but she is determined to give her two children a proper British Christmas.
“Now that I live in New York, I feel very British most of the time, but never more so than at Christmas, when I insist we do it all how I did it growing up in the U.K. So, that means Father Christmas gets a glass of sherry and a mince pie instead milk and cookies,” she said.
Both Ruth and Eleanor stressed their family Christmas celebration had nothing to do with religion.
Eleanor Margolis said Christmas “had/has nothing to do with Jesus in our house, it’s just something fun and decadent we do in winter.”
On the other hand, the family wouldn’t actually celebrate Chanukah “because my parents would consider that too religious.”
There is something funny about hearing Chanukah described as too religious because it is actually a fairly minor Jewish holiday.
Chanukah has grown in significance—or, really, fame—since the late 19th century in the U.S. as a way to keep Jewish children from feeling left out during the holiday season.
“They [American Jews] didn’t see Christmas as something they could do easily because it’s Christian, but they did want to do something like that because it was American,” Dianna Ashton, author of Hannukah in America, told NPR.
Yet Christmas retains its own popularity among Jews. According to the 2013 Pew study, nearly one-third of U.S. Jews (32 percent) have a Christmas tree in their home.
While the practice was much more prevalent among Jews married to non-Jews than Jews married to other Jews (71 versus seven percent), 29 percent of single Jews said they had a Christmas tree, suggesting the embrace of Christmas is not solely the result of interfaith family combinations.
Amy Rosenthal was raised in Bethesda, Maryland, by two Jewish parents who felt uncomfortable having a tree in their home, so she got her first tree—a fake one—when she was at college.
Now that Rosenthal is a law student at New York University, she has started buying real ones because she doesn’t have to deal with dorm codes (which sometimes forbid various horticulture). “When you’re in New York, you walk by the people selling Christmas trees, and it smells amazing. I love everything about it.”
She also makes gingerbread homes, or more specifically, gingerbread models of significant legal cases.
Last year, she made a gingerbread embodiment of Summers v. Tice, a Supreme Court case involving two hunters accidentally shooting their guide in the eye, which established an important doctrine regarding negligent liabilities.
The Christmas-loving Jews I spoke to often feel the need to draw lines against what Christmas activities they wouldn’t feel comfortable embracing.
“I would never do anything in my home. I would never have a Christmas tree, presents, or Christmas lights,” said Geselowitz.
Wolfson wouldn’t have a tree either, but doesn’t see them as inherently negative.
“It doesn’t bother me because I’m able to distinguish between what I see as cultural and what I see as theological ritual in the home,” she said.
Of course, some Jews, especially ones living in the infamously tight quarters of New York City, don’t do Christmas trees for logistical reasons.
Palley said she didn’t have a tree now, but “if I had a bigger place, I would.”
She added that even if she married a fellow Jew, or a Muslim, or someone of any other religious denomination, she would want a Christmas tree for their home. “It is a custom, and it is a cultural thing that’s important to me.”