Many British Jews celebrate Christmas. Christmas is so overwhelming here that it's hard not to: so much of the culture, entertainment, economy and rhythm of work is Christmas-based that it's hard to avoid.
British Jews are not as self-confident as American Jews, and you won't find a UK equivalent to Adam Sandler's or Jon Stewart's holiday-time songs. Instead you find an ever-so-slightly apologetic word about how it's just about the family.
I take my girls away from British Christmas and go to Israel. In much of Israel Christmas is a religious festival celebrated by Christians. They celebrate in Church and in their homes, and those who aren't Christian are largely left alone (though Jews in Eilat's tourist hotels have been known to receive visits from Father Christmas).
Christmas is one of Christianity's big successes. For two millennia Christianity ahs grown by absorbing cultures and religions, and the stretch from the feasts of St Nicholas and St Lucia in early December through Twelfth Night in January shows signs of absorbing any number of festivals including bits of the minor Jewish midwinter feast of Chanukah. The very relocation of the celebration of Jesus' birth to coincide with the Roman festival of Saturnalia and the midwinter solstice shows the willingness of the Church to flex when there are converts to gain and cultures to absorb.
By contrast Judaism has always been wary of syncretism. The same Hellenistic fusion of Eastern and Western religion that produced Christianity was viewed by the Pharisee masters who invented modern Judaism as an existential threat to their culture.
Hillel the Elder explained this in a parable:
The nightingale had a beautiful song. All the creatures of the forest came to hear the nightingale sing, and they were all enchanted. Before the concert was over the worm turned away to leave.
"Why are you leaving so early?" asked the lion. "Don't you find the nightingale's song beautiful?"
"The nightingale's song is beautiful," replied the worm, "but soon the singing will finish and I will be supper."
The Pharisee response to Hellenism is echoed by the American writer and polymath Elissa Wald who recently posted to Facebook:
I'm not a religious person, not a believer. There's not an angle from which I can claim to have any kind of Jewish virtue. I have no good reason to care when Jewish friends post pictures of their kids at the Christmas tree farm, or next to their decorated trees. So why is it like a tiny ice pick in my heart every time?
Elissa's Judaism isn't a theological Judaism, and she's not objecting to the tree as a representation of the Asherah that Biblical prophets railed against. She's not pricked by Germanic pagan associations with the Norse world tree Yggdrasil and the god Odin All-father who hung upon it.
A splinter of culture spalls from the tree and pierces her heart because like the Teutons who took their trees into Christian churches, the Gauls who let Brigantia become St Brigid and the Norsemen who turned Lussinatta into the feast of St Lucia; they are joining in Christian worship and leaving some of their own culture behind as a relic.
Any number of people tell me that joining in with Christmas is not a religious act. Christmas, they say, has been drained of all Christian significance. Christmas, they say, is practically a pagan holiday (as though all us non-Christians are pagans together).
And here is the cleverness of Christianity. Modern Christmas in all its appalling Santa Claus worship is not a degradation of Christianity. It is a sanctification, in Christ's name, of the mundane. Eating lots of goose or turkey or salmon or ham or carp becomes a Christian act. Maintaining social relationships or business relationships (like the annual Christmas card I used to get from the Israeli military attaché) becomes a Christian act. Watching The Great Escape becomes a Christian act. Drinking Coca-Cola becomes a Christian act.
Sanctification of the mundane isn't just a Christian idea. Jews do it with wine and bread and Shintoists do it with tea. The Christian genius is taking the sanctification global, filling churches with worshippers but also filling shopping malls, office parties and cyberspace with worshippers.
Christianity made monotheists of the multitudes by co-opting their gods, and they make Christians of us by co-opting our behaviour and making it holy.
This holy work has, if you will forgive a pun at Christmas, mass appeal. The last few words of the Kaddish (in so many ways the most Christian of Jewish prayers) are sung by Jews. Peace on earth and good will towards men, a nearly identical text sung by a divine chorus in the Gospel According to Luke, rings around the world in the voice of Schroeder from A Charlie Brown Christmas. A universal message from a universalist religion.
So enjoy your worship. I hope my Christmas Day is a better one than the year when an Israeli dentist took out my wisdom tooth. I'll be back in England for the Boxing Day sales.
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