It's hard to be a Jew on Christmas
My friends won't let me join in any games.
And I can't sing Christmas songs
Or decorate a Christmas tree.
Or leave water out for Rudolph
'cause there's something wrong with me!
I'm a Jew, a lonely Jew, on Christmas.
-- Kyle Broflovski, "South Park"
Like many American Jews, I grew up hating Christmas: the songs, the TV specials, the reindeer and sleighs, not to mention huge stockings bursting with toys delivered by a scary, fat man with a beard. So, like any self-respecting young intellectual, I rationalized. I scoffed at the commercialization, I noted how Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has nothing to do with Jesus, and, I piously observed, if religion is about lying to your kids about reward and punishment, then I was proud to have no part of it. Good for me.
Today, while I'm still not a fan of endless C-major holiday songs (often written by Jews) and mega-goyishe blinking lights, I have learned to make my peace with Chrismas - ironically, because of the same "paganism" that I once used to decry.
"Paganism" is a funny word. Originally a Christian Latin term referring to rural people and their earthy, non-Christian religions, it now refers to everything from out-and-out witchcraft to folks who like to dance in church. That covers a lot of ground - often literally, since paganism is usually connected to the Earth, sexuality, and the cycles of time.
But paganism is not separate from Christianity or Judaism - it's part of them. Traditional Jews put an egg on the Passover Seder plate, pray for rain in October, and celebrate a new year of the trees. Even the menorah, symbol of Hanukkah, has been linked both to specific plants indigenous to the Land of Israel and to sexual symbolism that, in Biblical times, was associated with the highly pagan goddess Asherah.
Really, despite the shrieks of the orthodox, paganism is an essential part of monotheistic religion. It's dark, sexual, primal and primitive. It can be unethical, orgiastic, ecstatic. But it's also an essential part of who we are as embodied human beings. It's a common ground that underlies Western and Eastern religious traditions, it connects us to our own unconscious, animalistic, and highly embodied natures, and I think it's worth reclaiming.
Luckily, we don't have to look far. Consider this month's holiday observances:
The Christmas tree. Jeremiah 10:3-4: "For the customs of the people are vain: for one cuts a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not." Sound familiar? In Europe, earth-based religionists have cut down boughs of evergreens in winter for millennia as a consolation in wintertime, and a reminder that life will return. The third-century church leader Tertullian even complained that Christians were following suit. As I mentioned earlier, the "tree of life" was in Biblical times a symbol of the Divine feminine (particularly the goddess Asherah), and trees were widespread objects of veneration. Of course, the Bible forbids such practices - but it does so precisely because people were doing them.
Wreaths and holly. Circles are ubiquitous symbols of femininity in the Kabbalah, in European earth-based religions and in many other systems, as well. They represent cyclicality, in contrast to "masculine," historical, linear time: the return of the seasons, the cyclical nature of sacred time (as described most poignantly in the book of Ecclesiastes) and, in the Kabbalah, as an aperture capable of enclosing the masculine line. Holly, on the other hand, is usually a symbol of masculinity and was the sacred plant of the Saturnalia, the Roman winter festival. Uniting the two is... well, you get the picture.
Santa Claus. St. Nicholas was a fourth-century bishop in what is now Turkey. Unlike in the 1823 poem, which is the most important source for St. Nick's contemporary image, he is not traditionally depicted as having had a bushy white beard, a funny red suit or a sleigh and reindeer. Indeed, given that there are not a whole lot of reindeer in Turkey, it seems probable that the imagery originally was associated with the Finnish joulupukki, a typically ornery pagan figure whose iconography is associated with goats and a long, white beard, or with Thor, who lives in the north, rides in a chariot drawn by two white goats and comes down chimneys into his native element of fire. Of course, there's no such nonsense in Judaism -- who ever heard of a Jewish figure who rides in a chariot in the sky and visits all the homes of the faithful in a single night? Oh right, other than Elijah. Right. Hmm.
December 25. If the gospels' story is true, Jesus was born during the holiday of Sukkot, Passover or Shavuot. None of these is in December, a rainy, cold month in Jerusalem. Rather, the dating of Christmas was meant to coincide with, and thus displace, winter solstice festivals. No wonder the tree (and the house, and the yard) is bedecked with lights; this is a basic human yearning, echoed in the lights of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Diwali.
My purpose in all this is not to demean Christmas but to celebrate it. As an American Jew, I've always felt alienated by this holiday. But that alienation has lifted as I've come to understand what's really being celebrated, beneath the nativity story and the rampant consumerism: the darkening of our days, the longed-for return of light and the earth-based symbolism of the solstice. This is the goddess in drag, hiding, as She always does, right in plain view.
Unlike the story of Jesus, these are symbols we all have in common, because they predate the rationales and rules of conventional religion. They're also much more meaningful than the blandness of the "holiday season." Indeed, for many of us, these universal, feel-it-in-your-guts symbols are more potent than Hanukkah's narratives of anti-Hellenistic resistance and dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. As scholar and author Rabbi Jill Hammer once told me, the growing of light is something you can feel in your body, rather than read about in a book.
I understand that many Jews and many Christians will not like my calling their winter holidays "pagan." But I mean it as a compliment. Imagine if we saw our varying traditions as different responses to the same mystery, and as elaborations of the same basic human needs. Might we reconfigure our senses of self and other, of holy and not-holy, of enemy and friend? I'm not suggesting a bland universalism; I'm arguing for a psychologically mature, intellectually honest and fearlessly embodied post-religious consciousness of guts, earth and sex, right alongside with, and mutually enriching, a serious ethical commitment. Such a view may be a lot to hang on a few trees and candles, but it has brought me some cheer this holiday season.