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I have completely different feelings towards the holidays than my father. It has never bothered him when someone wishes him a Merry Christmas. “I’m not offended if someone wishes me happy birthday when it isn’t my birthday,” he used to tell me, “What harm can extra good will do?”
I, on the other hand, despise December. Every sprig of mistletoe, every nativity scene and every adorned tree drives me up the wall. As one of the few Jewish students at my high school I ran a campaign to get music other than Christmas carols played over the PA system in the mornings. When someone asks me what I’m doing for Christmas I will reply — at times, coldly — that I do not celebrate. Although on principle I haven’t seen any movies starring the Grinch, I’ve been told that my attitude is comparable.
I fully recognize that I am biased, but you should understand that my resentment is not unfounded. While other kids my age associated Christmas with gift from Santa, I was left wondering why he hadn’t also visited my house. As a child of European and Israeli parents, the promised eight days of gifts for Jewish children was not a reality for me. This isn’t to say that I now feel hard done by it; I had more than enough toys to keep me busy growing up, but it meant that I wondered what I had done wrong to receive the proverbial lump of coal. Presuming that it was a lack of chimney, my mother explained the truth to me when she found me trying to make a tree out of cardboard and a green magic marker. Finding out that I was different from other kids in something that is often portrayed as a ubiquitous experience hit hard.
I relate to, and feel sorry for, the fictional Anthony Goldstein, the only Jewish character in the Harry Potter books, who would have most likely felt as alienated as I did when watching all the witches and wizards around him celebrate a holiday that easily took up one or two whole chapters of each book. I feel even sorrier for all of the Jewish kids, myself included, who weren’t able to picture themselves at Hogwarts as a result. I can suspend disbelief in allowing for charms and hippogriffs, but being Jewish is such a large part of my identity that I can’t envision my magical self as being anything but.
Anthony, much like myself, would have had a lot of experience being looked to as the token representative of Hanukah, or as it has often been described to me, “Jewish Christmas.” Every time a Hanukah song was played at an assembly — inevitable the hateful and nonsensical “dreidel dreidel” — people would look to me as if to say “is this what your religion looks like? Have we made you feel included yet?” The truth is that I feel no connection to the Hanukah songs often played by Gentiles. To start, none of my holiday tunes growing up were in English, and if you made a dreidel out of clay, I guarantee you that it would break. If you are going to include a token Jewish song, please at least just do it justice. This type of clumsy attempt at inclusion tends to just make me feel worse.
Perhaps even more upsetting to me than hearing “Jewish” songs I don’t know is knowing the Christmas ones a little too well. You can only live in Canada for so long before you absorb Christmas knowledge, and for me growing up, that was carols. It never ceases to disturb me that I know more tunes about the birth of Jesus than I do about the victory of the Maccabees. I feel extreme guilt over being more assimilated than not, but there is little that I can do about it. Every time I get “Silent Night” or “Deck the Halls” stuck in my head it is a reminder that this holiday does not belong to me, but that I can’t help but be involved in it whether I want to be or not.
Thus this December I have a simple request: please stop assuming that Christmas is a universal experience. Any holiday with “Christ” in its name is nowhere near secular enough for the entire population to be celebrating. Please stop tokenizing our holiday in half-hearted attempts at inclusion, because as the kids who know the truth about Santa long before you do, we hold more power than you’d like to believe.