Rabbinic Reflections: My Jewish Christmas

It’s been 11 years since Christmas last fell on a Saturday. It is the longest stretch in a cycle of Christmases on Saturday, falling every six years, then five years, then six years, then 11 years. It is little wonder then that this year is throwing me for a loop.

Like many American Jews, I have inherited traditions to make the most of Christmas. My family spent Christmas Eve eating at Chinese restaurants and Christmas Day at the movie theater. We are more likely to do Chinese takeout these days, and the new COVID spike will keep us home from a theater. That being said, Friday night and Saturday pose a different problem: Shabbat. How do I do my American Jewish Christmas traditions on Shabbat?

(From https://www.mic.com/articles/107192/so-why-do-jews-eat-chinese-food-on-christmas-anyway)

You will likely still see many American Jews getting Chinese (or similar) food and going to the movies over Christmas; my family’s observance of the Jewish Sabbath makes that nearly impossible. We observe Shabbat by staying home, eschewing commerce, having a family Shabbat dinner on Friday night, and spending time together resting from the labors of the world until three stars appear in the sky Saturday night. We will have to get our Chinese takeout Friday afternoon and keep it warm for dinner. We could wait for the end of Shabbat to see a movie on Saturday, but that late hour fails to fill Christmas Day.

My Jewish Christmas traditions matter to me. But, over the years, I have come to see that my “Jewish Christmas” was much more than food and movies; it was more a Jewish minority making the most of a majority Christian holiday.

My family’s attention to American Jewish Christmas tradition has been a way to honor what we hope for our Christian neighbors: we wish Christians an evening and day of gathering for traditional foods, sacred time (not working and, ideally, with family), and space to let in the Christmas spirit. We sought parallels that specifically took us out of our homes to appreciate what our neighbors did at home (and, for those who go, at church).

So, this year, I will focus on a different parallel. Just as Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, I will be thinking about the birth of the Jewish nation. The Jewish calendar has us reading the opening portion of the Book of Exodus on Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021. The Book of Exodus marks the transition from the sons of Jacob and their clans, who settled in Egypt at the end of the Book of Genesis, to the tribes of Israel, at first enslaved in Egypt and then freed. The first expression of that freedom was Israel keeping its own calendar. So, when the Israelites marked the new moon as the first of their months, they took a giant step toward being a free Jewish nation.

By focusing this year on Shabbat, I will remind myself what it means to create sacred time and how doing so exemplifies Jewish freedom. This year, I will focus on God’s deliverance of the Jews as a remarkable story of redemption. That will be my way of saying that I wish my Christian neighbors a beautiful celebration of the birth of their story of redemption. For everyone, I pray that we find ourselves honoring each other on Dec. 24 and 25, even as we do so in our own ways.

About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hillel Network, responsible for West Chester University, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and other area colleges. He is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington and was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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