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A Point of View: Have yourself a very Jewish Christmas

Window in New York showing Christmas tree and menorah Image copyright Alamy

Being Jewish is no reason not to celebrate Christmas, says the writer Howard Jacobson - although he draws the line at putting up a tree.

"What does Christmas mean to you?" was the title of an essay we were asked to write in our final year of primary school. I wrote that it meant seeing my father dressed as Santa Claus, getting stuck coming down the chimney. My teacher thought I must have made that up. "Isn't your family, er...?" she asked.

"Yes," I replied. "We are, er... But my father likes dressing up."

I didn't, however, want her to think we had abandoned our faith. "The reason he got stuck," I explained, "was that he was carrying a Chanukah candelabra."

"That should be candelabrum, singular, assuming he was carrying only one," she said, still eyeing me suspiciously.

In for a penny, in for a pound. "Actually, he was carrying three," I said. Before adding, "and the right word is menorah."

Don't cheek your teacher, my parents rebuked me when I told them about this. Shows how long ago it was.

Remembering our mongrel Christmases reminds me of the Tokyo department store which erected on its roof a giant Santa on a cross. Don't laugh - we can all get our wires crossed. And who's to say the store wasn't crucifying Santa as a gesture of multicultural goodwill?

One shouldn't be purist about these things. Given that Christmas was grafted on to other festivals - some of them self-evidently pagan - and that Jesus was a Jew with no desire to start a new religion, the question of Christmas's authenticity is moot. Let's rejoice in the eclecticism, I say, and find in the varieties of ways people choose to mark or miss the point of Christmas the universal love that is its message. We might lose thereby some of the solemnity that once attached to a sacrificial rite, but those who want that can still find it in a place of worship. Let the fervid pursue their fervour and let the half-hearted make merry. If Jesus didn't quite say that, he said something similar.

I was exaggerating only slightly to my primary school teacher. One way or another my family did acknowledge Christmas, even if, though we knew the difference well enough, we sometimes allowed it to merge with Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights, which falls about the same time. Hardly surprising - scratch one ancient winter festival and you find another. We're all hoping for the return of the sun. "Chanumas", some of my friends called this melange, by way of cheerfully accepting its ecumenical character. Others sternly opted to keep Christ out of it by referring to it as Xmas. We never cared for Chanumas or Xmas. We called Christmas Christmas, took from it selectively, but drew the line at a tree.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Howard Jacobson missed out on carol-singing in the snow

A Christmas tree, considered superficially, is just an evergreen, and who can object to the idea of eternal greenery when there is otherwise not a leaf to be seen? But what if - I only say what if - another sort of symbolism was at work and we were meant to be reminded of that tree from which the cross was fashioned, the cross for which Jews will be forever blamed. You can see why, all things considered, we didn't want a mute, accusatory crucifix-in-waiting winking in the corner of our living room. Yes, the fairy on the top should have made it all right again, but somehow it never quite did.

Those parts of Christmas that were theologically neutral, however, we embraced enthusiastically. Hence my father, who was an amateur magician, dressing up as Santa Claus in a Tommy Cooper fez, wandering in and out of our bedrooms with a wizard's wand in one hand and three menorahs (all right, one menorah) in the other.

We children saw through the subterfuge - my father was distinctively built, short and square - and it was too much of a coincidence that Santa should be built the same. But we still left requests, addressed to Father Christmas, Iceland, pinned to our Christmas stockings. Santa runs out of presents by the time he gets to Manchester, we'd been warned - which was a nice way of saying that a) he hadn't made his own mind up about the rights and wrongs of giving Christmas gifts to Jewish children, and b) we were hard-up. Fair enough. Everyone we knew was hard-up. For all that, we passed this holiest of nights creeping downstairs to see if Santa needed a hand clambering out of the chimney.


Chanukah or Hannukah - the Jewish festival of lights

Image copyright iStock
Image caption The Jewish festival of lights often coincides with Christmas
  • Festival dates back to about two centuries before Christ, and celebrates the story of how the Jews re-dedicated the ruined temple in Jerusalem to God by lighting a Menorah (lamp). Only one small jar of oil was found - enough for one day - but miraculously the lamp stayed alight for eight days
  • In the western calendar Hanukkah is celebrated in November or December (this year it was between 6 and 14 December). It is celebrated by lighting one candle on the Hanukiah (an eight-stemmed candelabrum) each day, and in some families small gifts are exchanged each day

The miracle of Hannukah (JewishHistory.org)


Our requests invariably went astray. No train sets. No Meccano. No edition of Why I Am A Jew by Cecil Roth. Just the usual - a bar of Toblerone, an India rubber, a small compendium of games comprising Snakes and Ladders (and nothing else), a cardboard belt, and a tangerine with a bit of leaf sticking out of it. The last time I wrote about Christmas past my sister contested my account. Her tangerine, she insisted, came without the bit of leaf. I can't explain that omission except by reference to an imaginary Talmudic ruling which says that girls below the age of puberty should not be given anything that grows. This, though, is unlikely as we knew as little of the Talmud as we did of Christology. Maybe it was feared the leaf evoked the tree that evoked the cross. But in that case, why did my brother and I get one?

Image copyright iStock
Image caption Christmas tangerines with hotly debated leaves

None of it added up. Why fruit at all, given that we didn't like fruit, in particular the variety you have to peel, and rarely ate it the rest of the year? But the Snakes and Ladders board made a certain sense. It was preparing us for life's disappointments. One minute you've reached the highest rung of the longest ladder, and the next you're sliding down a snake. Whether that's a Christian or a Jewish lesson, I remain grateful for it and never punch the air when a team I support goes ahead. The snake is always waiting.

We didn't sit down to Christmas dinner - turkey felt a step in the direction of apostasy too far - but we listened to the Queen's message on the wireless and watched Amahl And The Night Visitors on a six-inch black-and-green television. And though we didn't sing carols, we were moved by them. My mother still loves Silent Night. I still love In The Bleak Midwinter.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Queen Elizabeth gave her first Christmas message in 1957

Carols bear for me the melancholy of mixed belonging. They were sung at school assembly from the religious part of which Jewish boys were exempted. In an upstairs room a rabbi retold the story about the Jews holding out heroically against the Romans on Masada in the parched Judean desert. Pride stirred in my sandy chest, but the carols called to me of a competing heartland. The bleak midwinter of northern England where the earth stood hard as iron and the water like a stone - there I shivered, wrapped against the snow, my nose pressed to the window, on the other side of which Christian cherubim plumped up with Christmas pudding sang of giving joy to the world.

It would be wrong to call this exclusion, because it was more an enrichment than a deprivation. Had I knocked they'd have let me in. This was my school, my country, and they were singing in my language. But I enjoyed the equivocation of being half in and half out - loving the songs but not singing them. Same when it came to Christmas parties. I attended and I didn't. I relished the mince pies but abhorred the paper hats. Though that was more about forced conviviality than Christmas, and also about not wanting to spoil my hair. I will, though, willingly pull a cracker, and be content even when a wooden baby Jesus in a crib falls out.

Mongrelism is a virtue in a world made dangerous by the pursuit of purity. But I'm not asking for Christmas to be relativised or apologised for. There is too much apologising. When I hear of Christmas being cancelled in order not to offend people of other faiths or no faith, or when someone wishes me "Happy Holidays" or sends me "Season's Greetings" so as not to upset my sensibilities, I am seized with a most un-Christian anger. If you are sparing me, thank you, but it really isn't necessary. A history has accrued to Christmas, a literature of feeling about it, and that is every bit as much my history as anyone else's. And just because I am not religious, doesn't mean I can't peer into religious sentiment with curiosity, affection, and occasionally longing.


Top five Christmas songs written by Jews

Image copyright Getty Images
  1. "White Christmas" - Written by Irving Berlin (pictured), Bing Crosby's version is the bestselling single of all time
  2. "The Christmas song" ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire") - Written by Bob Wells and Mel Torme and recorded four times by Nat King Cole
  3. "Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow" - Sammy Cahn wrote the song in 1945, during a heatwave in Los Angeles
  4. "Santa Baby" - written by Joan Javits and made famous by Eartha Kitt
  5. "Winter Wonderland" - written in 1934 and recorded by more than 200 singers

This is an edited transcript of A Point of View, broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 GMT. Catch up on BBC iPlayer

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