I love Christmas and I’m a rabbi, so my love for Christmas is the love of a happy and respectful stranger. However, because of all that my dearest friend, Fr. Tom Hartman, taught me, I may, in fact, be a perfect stranger for Christmas.
In full disclosure, I must say that I love Passover and Purim, Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, Shavuot and Shabbat more than Christmas. I do love Christmas more than Hanukkah, because Hanukkah is just a poor ripoff of Christmas nowadays, and even in the old days, the Maccabees led the Hasmoneans, who were the most corrupt dynasty of Jewish priests in history.
The best Jewish holidays are in the fall and spring. Winter is for Christians. This could be the real reason why Jews go to Florida and Arizona in the winter. I’m happy to cede winter to Christmas. I’m happy to love it the way all of us should learn to love those holidays that are great, but not ours.
Every year, I run Seder meals for Christians, some of whom are jealous of Passover the way I’m jealous of Christmas. Jealousy is perhaps too strong a word. I don’t want Christmas for myself, but I’m happy it’s there for Fr. Tom and all the other Christians I love.
The first thing I love about Christmas is the twinkly lights. I know twinkly lights are not a high theological concept and, of course, I honor and acknowledge the Christian celebration of the birth of a Savior, a concept that leaves twinkly lights in the dust (snow?).
There’s something sublime about Christmas lights. I think my twink-aholism began while growing up in Milwaukee (actually Shorewood), Wis., when my neighbor Dick Albrecht invited me to help decorate his Christmas tree. Some of the ornaments were glass tubes shaped like candles and filled with colored water. At the bottom of each tube was a light that heated the water, sending bubbles gurgling up the tube. Those ornaments were magical.
There’s something about colored lights that’s always joyous, but colored lights in the middle of winter on trees and houses are also a revelation. They remind us all that winter is only drab if we let it be so.
The lights are a promise that even in winter’s seasonal darkness, we can have the joy those lights signify and, in fact, create. The lights are about joy, because at its heart, Christmas is about joy. I know Chanukah also has lights but they burn out, and I already told you I’m something of a Chanukah Grinch. Sue me.
The second reason I love Christmas has to be manger-hope. I love mangers. I love the animals more than the three kings, but the baby Jesus in the cradle is my favorite. At his birth, before his adult mission that theologically divides us, the infant Jesus was a symbol of inchoate hope. He was hope the way all babies are hope.
“A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on,” Carl Sandberg wrote.
I agree, and the baby Jesus is a symbol of all babies and the way they gently help us upgrade our idea of life and its spiritual possibilities. A baby in a manger seems a perfect depiction of a future that is not bleak, but bright.
The more advanced element of hope symbolized by the birth of Jesus is the hope that we all might find a way to correct our lives, all broken by sin. Each religion has a different way to teach hope. I believe God’s Torah is my hope for a life of virtue and salvation. Whether I need Jesus’ hope will be sorted out by God in the fullness of time.
Christmas is certainly one of the greatest holidays any religion has ever produced. Its combination of twinkle and hearth, cookies and wreaths, the promise of a redeemer for this wounded world, and of Santa while we wait, is extraordinary and alluring, magical and moving. Christmas works so well, it’s no wonder that one out of every three people on earth is a Christian.
Again, please don’t misunderstand me. I have no desire to become a Christian, no desire to move from the trunk to the branch of this good old tree that Paul images in Romans 11.
And so I offer up a simple prayer “for kids from one to 92" (yes, Mel Torme, a Jewish guy, wrote those words). I’m happy that my best friend, Tommy, and his family and friends, and all my other Christian friends, are enjoying Christmas. I believe that religion is not like cheerleading for your home team. It’s not about selfish parochialism but rather about appreciating all those climbing the same mountain to the Truth on different paths.
I love the music and scent, the light and hope of Christmas. I even love its chaos and commercial nonsense. After all, retailers have to eat, too, and the whole crazy affair is really just about giving to those you love. Such a virtue is both simple and unalloyed.
Thank you, God, for giving your Christian children such a great holiday. I’m truly happy for them, if not with them. Christmas has brightened my darkened streets and filled our world with a measure of hope and joy during winter, when such things are in particularly short supply. And even if Bloomies is already advertising 40% off all of its Christmas tree angels, and even if there’s too much tinsel and too little fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la in this great holiday, I welcome all of it and give thanks to You, the God of hope and joy for all of us.
When Ramadan comes around again, I’ll be happy for Ramadan. When Wesak (Buddha’s birthday) arrives in May, I’ll be happy for Wesak, but now, in this season, I’m happy for Christmas.
God bless us one and all.
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