Let’s get the first fact straight right off the top, there is no Jewish Christmas, there never can be a Jewish Christmas, nor will there ever be a Jewish Christmas. There is no reason for Jews to feel awkward, sad, lonely, nostalgic, left out or anything on the evening of December 24 and the day of December 25, we have no connection whatsoever to that day.
To Catholics, Christmas is the celebration of the imaginary birthday of Jesus (the date was arbitrarily chosen by the church thousands of years ago, probably to coincide with the winter Solstice, most cultures have a solstice celebration), the man they believe was the messiah and the human incarnation of G-d. Since Jews don’t believe Jesus was G-d or Messiah (if we did, that would make us Catholic or at least Christian), we do not celebrate the holiday.
It seems silly that I have to lay this out in writing, but a quick scan of Facebook shows thousands of Jews wishing each other and everyone else a Merry Christmas, Rabbis referring to the eve of the 24th as an awkward day for the Jews and at least one Jewish radio broadcaster choosing to put on a “Jewy” Christmas special where he interviewed Jews who expressed how awkward it is to be Jewish this time of year.
Yes, we live in a Christian society where our world revolves around Christian holidays. Yes, mass media exploits the holidays to make money, yes, as human beings we pang for everything our neighbours have, even though the 10th Commandment tells us not to. But, folks, we are Jewish, so get over society and get with the program.
Because the majority of Jews are living an assimilated life, they tend to look at our traditions as boring, outmoded and non-important. Heck, mass media doesn’t help the cause, how many Succot specials have you seen on television? Not many, mainly because the Jewish writers and producers (ironically a recent survey shows most of the writers and producers in television are Jewish) are serving the mass market, not a niche one. There are more Catholics and Christians out there who will cry over a Christmas special, than Jews who will kvel over a Purim one.
Some argue that Christmas has become a commercial event, with stores raking in billions of dollars and whatever religiosity once was attached to it, is now gone. They point out that two of the most famous symbols of Christmas were originally created as holiday marketing for companies wanting to cash in on the Christmas spirit.
St Nicholas was a Turkish monk who used to deliver presents to the poor around Christmas time. Early depictions of St Nicholas was a thin man, dark skin, dressed in monk’s robes with a short white beard. the imagery of Santa Claus, in a red suit with white trim came from a 1931 Coca Cola advertising campaign.
One of the main stories about Saint Nicholas:
“There was a poor man who had three daughters. He was so poor, he did not have enough money for a dowry, so his daughters couldn’t get married.One night, Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold down the chimney and into the house The bag fell into a stocking that had been hung by the fire to dry! This was repeated later with the second daughter. Finally, determined to discover the person who had given him the money, the father secretly hid by the fire every evening until he caught Nicholas dropping in a bag of gold. Nicholas begged the man to not tell anyone what he had done, because he did not want to bring attention to himself. But soon the news got out and when anyone received a secret gift, it was thought that maybe it was from Nicholas.”
Saint Nicholas was eventually known as the protector of children and sailors and a feast day was celebrated on December 6, the anniversary of his death.
Almost 100 years later, Dutch settlers in New York brought the Saint Nicholas’ legend to America. The Dutch gave Nicholas the nickname “Sinter Klaas” a derivation of the Dutch Sint Nikolass.
So, how did Santa become a fat man in Coke colors giving gifts to children on a sled led by Reindeer? Well, the modern image of Santa Claus can be accredited in part to Clement Clark Moore. Moore wrote a poem called “A Visit from Saint Nick” or more commonly referred to as “Twas the Night Before Christmas” . In the poem, he described Santa as a right jolly old elf with a paunch.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast was the first to depict Santa as a rotund figure with a white beard holding gifts for children. Nast also associated Santa with the North Pole, Mrs. Claus and Elfs. His illustrations were massed distributed through Harper’s Weekly Magazine.
Santa got his red and white suit in 1931 in an ad illustration by Haddon Sundblom for Coca Cola. Red and white are Coke’s corporate colors. Sundblom used his friend Lou Prentiss, a retired salesman as the model for Santa.
For a complete Santa timeline, click here
Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer
While the modern image of Santa in a red suit was created by Coca Cola, the story of his red glowing nose reindeer led sled was created by department store Montgomery Ward.
In 1939, Robert L. May designed a booklet that was published by the Montgomery Ward department store. The retailer had been purchasing and giving away coloring books around Christmas time and decided that they could save money by creating their own booklets.
May ran into a slight issue with his illustrations though. At the time, a bright red nose was a symbol of alcoholism. In order to shake that impression, May enlisted an illustrator friend, Denver Gillen to develop the “cute reindeer” , bouncy, excited Rudolph that is known today. It was Gillen’s creation that sold the idea to Montgomery Ward.
In the first year of publication, over 2.5 million copies of Rudolph’s story was distributed.
In 1944, Max Fleischer created a cartoon short of Rudolph.
in 1949, May’s brother in law, Johnny Marks adapted the Rudolph story into a song. Gene Autry hit number 1 on the Billboard charts with it that year, eventually selling 25 million copies of it. The Fleischer short was re-issued in 1949 with Mark’s song attached to it.
DC Comics got in on the Rudolph action releasing a series of 13 annuals titled Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer from 1950-1962.
In 1958, Golden Books published an illustrated storybook about Rudolph, adapted by Barbara Shook Hazen and illustrated by Richard Scarry.
In 1964, the tale was adapted for television with a short movie narrated by Burl Ives.
In 1998 a full length movie was released for home video.
I’m not much into commercialism, but many people get sucked into the vortex of the constant badgering of stores to buy stuff for the holiday season. Many people get sucked into the false sense of happiness, bewilderment and joy fostered by our entertainment industry to ‘sell’ the Christmas season. Sadly, many Jews get sucked in too.
All this to say, to my non Jewish friends, have a happy holiday.
For my Jewish friends, take this unique opportunity where you feel vulnerable and the craving that you feel to be part of something and explore your Jewish roots. Learn about the rich customs of your people, the amazing holiday customs and traditions that are rooted in your culture and your religion.
Forget the media, forget the tinsel and the trees and the fat man in a Coke suit, focus on Torah, mitzvot and being a better person and a better Jew.
If you are feeling awkward this Christmas season, explore why, where the awkwardness comes from and how you can overcome the awkwardness and realize that not all people celebrate everybody’s holidays. We enjoy Rosh Hashanah and Pesach, let your non-Jewish friends have Christmas and Easter.
Once you let go, you will realize that Judaism is beautiful, rich and extremely fun, give it a shot, won’t ya?