I was raised in an atheist household. My mother was particularly fanatical in her lack of faith, evangelical almost. Sometimes she would thunder from the pulpit at me, screaming hellfire and damnation to all those fools preaching their gospels on TV. She called Pat Robertson ‘The Devil.’ She told me that Jerry Falwell was ‘Satan Himself.’ She would go down the list of 1980s con artists/evangelicals (and ravenously articulate their scandals to me, her youngest child), people who spent most of that decade of greed trying to convince the truly (and ignorantly–she always said ‘ignorantly’) faithful that if they didn’t get another grand spire on their already mammoth churches, then God was going to ‘call them home.’
My father was more aloof. In fact, I have no idea what his religious beliefs were or are to this very day. I suspect that he simply doesn’t care. He is the sort of man who thinks everything is bullshit, that everything is a lie (it should come as no surprise, therefore, that this man, now well into his 70s, has become a pretty unshakable Donald Trump supporter).
My take on my family’s faith was somewhat different. I found the whole process to be absurd–not just the fantastical and mystic holy rituals we were always busy denouncing, but even the denunciations themselves. It seemed to me more like just another wasted prayer, where time could be better spent celebrating days off work and school with family, or getting one another presents. Christmas was an angry time for my family. Everyone at home seemed to feel somehow left out of the larger world.
Now in some informal background of my family there are a handful of Jews sitting beside generations of non-believers. There are a few Christians, an actual Hindu, and a handful of new-age Buddhists. By now I am certain that some of my distant relatives, whom I never have and never will meet, have converted to Islam, but that has more to do with regional religious trends and peer pressure. My mother’s father was Jewish and, as halfhearted as he was in his faith (World War II had pretty much destroyed any sort of God for him), he still enjoyed the traditional celebrations. He liked Passover with that seder dish, and the mostly unapproachable food, like parsley dipped in salt water, and beat juice stained horseradish. He enjoyed playing hide the matzoh with his grandchildren and, since he was a man of some means, he would often hide a rather large sum of cash within the napkin-wrapped prize.
Hanukkah was, of course, his favorite holiday. This is not a particularly religious holiday, more a fairy tale celebration of a very little bit of oil somehow lasting longer than it should have, then being written off as a miracle. I do not know exactly why the terrified people hiding within the flickering shadows even needed such feeble light, but that is the story and, because it lasted for eight days, there are eight days of presents, and a whole lot of candles wasted–candles that no doubt would have been an even greater gift from God had those suffering pilgrims managed to get their hands upon some.
Hanukkah cannot come close to comparing to Christmas in its majesty, although the gifts can be exactly the same. The story of Hanukkah seems tired and has no real significant import not just to the faith, but to the grand world of mythology as well. Now Christmas . . . Christmas . . . there’s a story it’s pretty hard to beat.
What do you find more interesting? Candles stayed lit for eight days (amazing!), or the Messiah has come? Now don’t get me wrong–I was raised to believe both tales are nonsense, so I am not picking a favorite. But one tells of huddling safety, while the other shines a light on the presumption of a brand new world.
Look at the decorations: a menorah, which is a fine relic, often made very fun in the arts and crafts lessons at elementary schools, or at Jewish center after school daycare programs. Compare this to the glittering forest of Christmas trees, shining in all different colors, with tinsel and beautifully reflective balls, and candy canes, flying reindeer and Santa Claus. How could the Jews ever hope to compete with this box office gold at the end of the year?
This is not to say that there isn’t any fun to be had over Hanukkah. One year around the Holiday season back when I was teaching high school, it was a pretty glum place. At this time of year many students would cut class, some to get high in the stairwells and bathrooms, others to grind and sometimes actually fuck in a corner grotto in one of the mostly abandoned nooks of the school (one time, near the end of my time there, when frustration had turned into hopeless cynicism, I caught two students shoved up against the wall and the only thing I could think to say was ‘Eww. I hope he doesn’t get you pregnant. Your baby would be really ugly.’ And then I simply kept on walking.)
Anyway, one of the chief activities I noted was outright gambling with cards and dice on the floor, wads of cash smacked down and an incongruous shout of ‘Domino!’ when someone got a blackjack or a full house. I watched the kids sometimes (there were days when literally zero students showed up to class, more than half of them absent, the remaining few the mostly worthless kids who were bound to wind up junkies, in jail, or dead, unless they humbled themselves into shitty jobs and got drunk on the weekends, screaming about the failures of sports stars, ignoring their growing families). I imagined, at this time of year, handing them a dreidel, giving them a brief rundown of the meanings of the symbols and the rules (I have no idea what the symbols mean, or how to play the game. Is it more than spinning a top?) I would tell them that it was for money and get them singing the dreidel song as it spun round and round before choosing a winner. It was a fun image, these street tough city kids, barking and fighting usually, taking some time off to be children again before arguing about money. I even wrote a short story about this vision called “Gamin’ Wiz Da Dreidel,” which I handed out to many fellow teachers just before Christmas, some of the characters no doubt reflections of recognizably troubled and dangerous students. It was generally received very well, the cruel laughter of teachers in that moment of staff meetings when we are allowed to express just how much we hate our jobs.
But I was talking about Christmas and Hanukkah, two mild reflections of one another, competing in a climate of collapsing faith. All of this is exploited, a bombardment of television commercials featuring Santa Claus or The Grinch (a better American symbol of the season than any other figure I can think of), and proving just how much fun the season can be. Some families have rituals after Thanksgiving of putting up the lights (occasionally obscenely ostentatious), and decorating the tree. They transform their entire homes into blazing red and green torches that sometimes burn the whole house down if an outlet is over-burdened. But we all try to pretend that everything is good, at least for that short while.
Other religions try to compete. Take Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa was first celebrated in 1966 more as a racial protest than an Islamic festival. It was a Pan-African-American creation, celebrating and trying to re-assert the African diaspora and prove, again, that slavery has been the greatest evil of human history, which is to this point unquestionably true.
But Kwanzaa is an American holiday, not a religious festival at all. It was developed by Black Power activists of the 1960s, and eventually stormed its way into relevance as a direct competition with Hanukkah and Christmas, even forcing an acknowledgement by the federal government. It was “even if we refuse to believe in your bullshit, we can invent some other nonsense to give presents to each other over.” The sentiment is perfectly fine, but the transformation of ‘joy to the world’ into a political protest seems to run counter to the faith in this time of year. In fact, this holiday in itself has transformed the Jewish and Christian holidays into counter protests of serious political intent.
Christians (of the right wing, mostly) scream about a ‘War on Christmas,’ as though the handful of assholes angry about the joyous colors and lights are being listened to by anyone other than themselves and have a sinister end goal out outlawing Jesus Christ. There are angry Jews, protesting the elevation of Christmas over Hanukkah, genuinely offended (for some reason) that there are people who would dare put a Christmas tree within their line of vision. And then there are the atheists like me (more like my mother), who demand that their local politicians take action, insisting on a reckoning over the separation of church and state as though anyone, any longer, truly looks at Gift-Giving Day as a religious icon.
That is what I have been calling it for many years–Gift-Giving Day, which can be celebrated at any time in December, after all the presents are bought. My idea, I believe, should be every bit as cherished as the more ancient and traditional holidays. You can save money on decorations and have friends and family over for a less awkward, occasionally immoral holiday. Presents do not even need to be wrapped, perhaps spoiling a little of the excitement over receiving a gift, but even this more aligns with the open and friendly atmosphere I believe this holiday season should inspire, and not the rigid responsibilities holiday preparations require, and the awkwardness and irritation that puts everyone in anxious misery.
And so Happy Jewish Christmas, or Kwanzaa New Year, or, let us be fair–Happy Gift Giving Day to all, and to all a pleasant mid-morning and early-afternoon–