Being Jewish on Christmas
It’s January 2nd, 2018 and I’m sitting on my beanbag chair writing the draft of what Ms. Pahomov has assured the class will be the “Best Personal Essay Ever”.
If I was part of the majority of students in Ms. Pahomov’s Air Stream English Class who “celebrate” Christmas, I might have been able to blame my procrastination on Christmas. I could’ve given the reader an excuse like “Oh I had tons of family over and we were all so wrapped up in the exchanging of gifts and all the other fun stuff that is involved with Christmas.” But I can’t because I’m a conservative jew (which is a branch of Judaism just like Catholic or Protestant etc) who has quite possibly one of the most jewish names ever. Adding on to the in-your-face nature of my unusual name, I am the exact stereotype of a jew on Christmas Eve and Christmas.
I rolled over and squinted at my old alarm clock. The red blocky numbers read “11:07”. I pulled the covers off of my body and stumbled lazily downstairs. “Guys we should go see Three Billboards,” my dad started, “Woody Harrelson’s in it. You know right? The dude from White Men Can’t-”
“Abba (dad in hebrew), I know who Woody Harrelson is,” I said matter-of-factly.
“Ooh it has the woman from Fargo! I’m down,” my mom exclaimed. My brother walked down the fading grey carpeted stairs sporting blue and green plaid SLA pajama pants. He was on his way into the kitchen for breakfast when my mom asked him if he wanted to go to the movie as well. He lethargically shrugged his shoulders as he stumbled off of the wooden step and turned through the doorway into the kitchen. Minutes later he brought a pair of strawberry Pop Tarts into the living room and abruptly dropped into the seat of a green one-armed chair.
“When are we going?” he mumbled through a mouthful of Pop Tart.
“Soon as you finish eating,” my mom responded in an eager tone.
“M’kay,” he grumbled.
After my brother changed, we headed to the movie at the Roxy Theater in Society Hill. As we drove, I spotted tons of signs with “LAST CHANCE CHRISTMAS DEALS” or “MERRY CHRISTMAS, PHILLY!” printed on them with huge red and green lettering. But not one that mentioned anything about any other holiday. Being that I’d seen signs like these since I was little, it didn’t bother me that there weren’t any signs about Chanukah or Kwanza or any other seasonal holiday. Our car bumped along on a cobblestone street until we found a spot across the street from the theater.
As Lonely by Yung Bans and Lil Skies’ bubbly and video game-esk instrumental started to become less resonant in my headphones, I started to slowly slide my legs out of bed. I stretched out and looked outside my bedroom window. The PECO building lights stuck out like a sore thumb against the pitch black sky. The numbers “6:48” jogged across the top of the building as I began to stretch my groggy limbs. I walked downstairs to my mom sitting cross legged on her computer and my dad fast asleep on the couch smothered in a red and blue yarn blanket. My dad finds football games as the ideal soundtrack for a nap while my mom finds the games to be perfect background noise for working on the various things that come in her job description.
“Oh Av. You’re up. I was thinking that we could go to Chinatown for Christmas Eve dinner. What do you think?” My mom asked, suddenly looking up from her computer.
“You want to go to-”
“Sang Kee Noodle House!’ My brother exclaimed walking out of the kitchen with a newly peeled orange.
I gave my mom the “he has a good point” look and she shrugged. “I’m down.”
Ten minutes later, a Lyft arrived at the door of our small brick row home. We climbed into the driver’s sedan and drifted down to the bottom of our street. “So, you guys got your Christmas tree up yet?” The driver asked. My dad casually answered that we had, a typical move from a man who doesn’t enjoy hostile or uncomfortable confrontation. Many Jews who I’ve been around are as passive as my dad when it comes to questions about Christmas. However, my mom isn’t one of those people. She viciously bit her lip as her eyes narrowed. Her arms were flexed just above her lap and her fists balled up so tight I thought her hand would split open. My dad continued to make small talk with the driver for most of the ride, seeming unfazed by the man’s remark.
The driver dropped us off in front of the restaurant, gave us a stiff lipped smile, and drove off. We entered the restaurant and were guided to a table near the restaurant’s glass doors. Seconds after we’d sat down, my mom started to voice her dismay at the driver’s inability to recognize that many people don’t celebrate Christmas. She continued to argue that America is notorious for not recognizing people’s cultural backgrounds and making generalizations that allow people to think that everyone celebrates Christmas. Her point really resonated with me as I continued to explore this concept throughout the night. Her argument made me realize that watering down culture and our differences is a value that is deeply embedded in American culture. Digging deeper into this theme, I realized that commercialism has made a similar effect on Christmas. Commercialism turned the holiday into an excuse to spend money on meaningless items and has seemingly lost all religious ties to Christianity. I went to sleep that night asking myself what the point of Christmas really was.
I woke up late the next morning to my dad shaking me and telling me that we were going to my aunt and uncle's house for a Christmas-ish lunch. My brother and I stuffed Pop Tarts into our hungry mouths and hopped into the car. As we drove over the South Street Bridge, I looked at various people’s Snapchat stories and watched as they ripped open presents. I scrolled through three or four stories that were all variations of boasting what they got from their parents and/or loved ones. But then I saw one story that stuck out from the others. After ripping open presents, the girl got up and gave her mother a huge embrace. While hugs aren’t exactly a commodity in the world we live in, this hug made me really think and helped change my view on Christmas entirely.
I realized then that while Christmas is often the forefront of seasonal advertising and that consumerism has become an integral part of the holiday, at the end of the day, Christmas is about being with family and going out of your way to do something nice for someone else. Christmas gives families an opportunity to bond and reconnect and to be a part of something greater by giving to others. Thinking critically about Christmas made me realize that going to my aunt and uncle’s house meant that I was “celebrating” Christmas in my own way. I got the opportunity to reconnect with family and celebrate our time together with food and exchanging time from our busy lives to spend time together.
This theme of an intense familial bond and being a part of something greater is one of the overarching themes of Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried. In O’Brien’s various stories, he shows how being together for every hour of every day force the soldiers of the Alpha troop to form fervent familial connections to everyone in the troop. The beginning of the book lists every single thing that the soldiers carried with acute precision. This acute attention to detail shows how well O’Brien knew his troop. As for being a part of something greater than yourself, all of the men in the Vietnam war were fighting so that their families and country would have security in their lives.