Messianic Judaism brings together many intermarried families with many different backgrounds and stories. In December, there is an issue which touches the core of what it means to struggle with two heritages, two cultures, under one roof.
Yesterday, in a comment on my post about going off to Chicago-land, in which I mentioned that I am working on a haggadah for the birth of Messiah, Tandi wrote in representing what I would call one extreme position in approaching the question of Christmas. You can see her comment here.
Tandi’s explanation, though it contains several historical inaccuracies (even major ones), is nonetheless essentially true. The customs of Christmas are adapted from Roman and Teutonic holidays and at the root these customs did once involve pagan rites and worldviews. From this, she concludes that Christmas-celebrating families are being deceived into unwittingly practicing pagan worship and imitating the forbidden customs of the native peoples. I cannot go this far.
But it is a good question to raise: should an intermarried family celebrate Christmas?
First, it should be noted that adapting pagan customs for the worship of the true God is not only allowable, it is something God himself does. Research and you will find that Sukkot (Tabernacles) is quite similar to the Babylonian and other Mesopotamian rites at the end of harvest. You will find that new moons marked the calendar in virtually all ancient cultures prior to the institution of the Biblical calendar. You will find that Late Bronze temples amongst the pagans were virtually identical in layout to the pattern God showed Moses on Sinai for the Tabernacle and what later became the Temple in Jerusalem. You will find that cherubs, mixed creatures of animal and human features, marked the deities of Egypt and Mesopotamia and yet were included on the Ark and on the curtains of the Temple. I could go on and on, but Tandi and the many critics of Christmas as deceptive-pagan worship need to reckon with the fact that worship customs are shared in common between pagans and Jews and Christians and always have been.
Second, the idea that customs of Christmas (a cut tree, holly, a fire, songs, etc.) are equatable with the customs of the Canaanites which the Torah forbids Israel to imitate has a major problem. The problem is that in context after context, the Torah and prophets give examples of these customs. They involve idolatrous worship, sexual immorality, and even child sacrifice. These are hardly equatable with a family decorating and feasting for a holiday.
More importantly, Christmas represents for many of the non-Jewish spouses of intermarriage a treasured piece of childhood, a family heritage, and a cultural expression that brings fond memories. When a person comes to God he does not strip away heritage or culture, but only wrong-doing and error.
Christmas is for many a connection to extended family, a shared experience that has meant bonding and forgiving and coming together for something good and joyful.
There are positive reasons why a non-Jewish spouse of intermarriage might want to celebrate Christmas.
Yet there are strong reasons to take the opposite approach as well. My family has chosen not to celebrate Christmas for these reasons. I find them compelling.
Celebrating Christmas in an intermarried family will confuse the children. Are they being raised as Jews or encouraged to assimilate and leave Jewish identity behind? Their Christian friends will see them as really Christians and not Jews as will their Jewish friends. At best, Christmas in a Jewish or intermarried home sends a mixed message.
Remembering the birth of Messiah on December 25 is based on a falsehood. The church long ago chose a date which coincided with a Roman feast involving pagan customs. This was not an attempt by the church to deceive anyone. It was a matter of expedience. Everyone was already freed from regular work during Saturnalia and it was a good time for a feast (Christmas feasts were more than one day at that time). Yeshua was decidedly not born on December 25 which means there is always something artificial about Christmas. We have no idea when Yeshua was born (the so-called proof that he was born during Sukkot is baseless and equally false).
Christmas long ago ceased to be a sign of faith, an identity marker of a person devoted to Messiah and willing to take a stand in a Messiah-less culture. Christmas is simply the way of the land, a day that may just as well be about greed and the desire to enrich our lives with baubles and amusements. It is no act of faith to bow to the deities of Walmart and Target and Best Buy.
Very significantly for the Leman family, Christmas detracts from Hanukkah. The materialistic delights of Christmas presents easily outweighs the family fun of dreidl and the telling of the Maccabean story. Why would we want our children to thing of Hanukkah as “that other holiday in December”?
Finally, and also a deciding factor in the Leman home, Christmas will raise barriers with Jewish friends and family. I know, some of you intermarrieds are saying, “But my mother-in-law buys Christmas presents for the kids and she has a tree in her own house.” This is often the case. But even those in the Jewish community who celebrate Christmas know it is a compromise with assimilation. And they look to you, the family that supposedly believes in God and is devoted to him, and they wonder why you are so eager to assimilate. What difference does God make and is faithfulness an issue for you at all? It is better for them if you are not committed and excuses their own surrender to assimilation. Let’s not take God too seriously, shall we?
I have said more on this topic than usual. It is an emotional one. As a rabbi over a congregation of mostly intermarried families, I make no comment at synagogue or when I visit a home. I respect either decision, though clearly I favor one over the other.
I know as well as anyone the good side of Christmas as well as the bad side. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of my favorite movies too. The true values of the secular Christmas are not just materialism, but a return to family, goodwill toward all people, and faithful and devoted love. Even without the Messiah story, Christmas has a good side.
I don’t hesitate to say Merry Christmas to friends. I don’t rankle because the store clerk does not say, Happy Hanukkah to me. I simply have made the choice to keep Hanukkah in the Leman home and not Christmas. And, yes, I have succumbed to the temptation to give gifts to my wife and children at Hanukkah. It is a compromise with secular culture, but we give it meaning in our own way.
So, why am I making a Haggadah for the Birth of Messiah and putting it out in December? Stay tuned and we will discuss it tomorrow.