Dear Spengler:
As a Jew, I do not celebrate Christmas. My children, though, want a Christmas tree and other symbols of the season. I have tried to discourage this, but they seem heartbroken at being left out of the holiday spirit. Should I take a hard line on this issue?
Grinchy at Christmas

Dear Grinchy:
I do not know quite what your religion requires of you. You should consult your own clergy, not me. Permit me to point out, however, that you should not be surprised at your children’s dudgeon, for it is unnatural for children to be Jewish. Judaism is an old man’s religion. In the whole enterprise of revealed religion, the Jews are the grown-ups, looking down tolerantly (at best) on the children’s games of the Gentiles.

In another generation this was so obvious as to provide material for a stock joke (“So young, and already Jewish?”). What makes the Christmas season so stressful for Jewish children is that they have the misfortune to be both Jewish and children, at a moment when the entire Gentile world is given over to a child’s view of things. The Christmas spirit, however, is almost, but not quite Christian; if we look more deeply into the Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, we find Puritan virtues obscured by Dickens’ slanderous portrait.

In the person of the Christ child, Christendom embraces the world as newly created and full of promise, in all its innocence and hope. I use the term “Christendom” rather than “Christianity,” for the subject of Christianity is Christ crucified, for whom the infant in the manger is only foreshadowing. Easter, not Christmas, is the center of the Church calendar. Christmas lends itself to pagan syncretism more than any other Christian festival, not only because of the accessories (Yule, tree, holly and so forth), but because it is not Christ’s birth, but rather his death, that constitutes his self-revelation.

No Christian sect ever banned Easter, but the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1659 did in fact ban Christmas, imposing fines on whomever did not turn up for work on Christmas Day. The Puritan leader Increase Mather inveighed,

The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that festival after such a manner as is highly dishonorable to the name of Christ. How few are there comparatively that spend those holidays (as they are called) after an holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth …

Puritan distaste for “Christmas spirit,” by the way, is why Dickens’ Scrooge bears the Christian name “Ebenezer,” an Old Testament reference that reveals a dissenting Protestant background, and the sort of Christian asceticism that would eschew Christmas.

Scrooge is a vicious caricature of the Puritan position. Considering that America is the last Christian nation thanks in large measure to the accomplishments of the Puritans, we should reconsider Scrooge’s point of view. Puritanism, I have argued in the past, represents a “Judaizing heresy” in some measure: the concept of a new Israel entering a new Promised Land in emulation of the Book of Exodus seems like a crypto-Judaic effort to bring the Kingdom of God into this world. Puritan sobriety came close to, but did not quite attain, the uncanny seriousness of traditional Jewish life (as described by A J Heschel):

To be gay, carefree, relaxed, was an art few of them ever learned. A Jewish child would be taught that life was too earnest to be wasted on play. Joy, when felt, was always for a serious reason, the trimming for a happy occasion, justified like a logical conclusion … There was restrained mourning in their enthusiasm, profound sadness in their joy. [1]

The most successful of Christian movements, namely the Christian exodus from Europe that founded the United States, celebrated the same sadness and sobriety, to the point of banning Christmas celebrations. But I do not mean to imply that the childishness of the Christmas festival offends Christianity; the emphasis on the Christ Child rather than the crucified Christ celebrates the hope of the nations for salvation – if not the realization of that salvation at Easter.

The Gentiles are the children of the world, perpetually young. They must be young, for they are condemned to die young, to pass into dust as history moves on. Only as individuals, rather than as members of Gentile nations, can Christians hope to escape the death sentence passed on their entire kindred. To do this they must repudiate their Gentile flesh, and be born anew into God’s People. But the wide-eyed wonder of children characterizes the peoples as they first encounter the Christ Child. As Hans Christian Andersen wrote (in my favorite of all Christmas Carols, set in Robert Schumann’s Op 79 no 16):

Ermanne dich, Seele, die krank und matt,
Vergiss die nagenden Schmerzen.
Ein Kind ward geboren in Davids Stadt
Zum Trost fur alle Herzen.
O lasst uns wallen zum Kindlein hin,
Und Kinder werden in Geist und Sinn.

(Take courage, my soul, who has been sick and weary,
Forget the nagging pain:
A child was born in David’s town
For the consolation of all hearts.
O let us make our pilgrimage to the little child there,
And become children in sense and spirit).

The affinity of children to the Christmas story and the holiday therefore is the most natural thing in the world, and children of all faiths cannot help but want to be part of the general outpouring of childlike happiness.

In sadness and fear of mortality the Puritans fled the Old World, as the Thirty Years War scourged European civilization, driving the radical Protestants into a new exodus across the Atlantic. In that respect the judaizing Protestants naturally took on the somber outlook of the Jews. The Jews are too old to play at being children, and always have been. They were born old.

The fulfillment of God’s promise to the Jews from the very beginning has been a miracle wrought for an old man, when life is nearly spent and nothing short of intervention by the visible hand of God can restore hope. God’s promise to the Gentiles appears in the form of baby; God’s promise to the Jews is given to a centenarian whose wife is long past menopause. But the birth of Isaac is important not because of the boy himself, but rather because it fulfills the promise to Abraham; of Isaac’s life we know little, except his near-sacrifice on Mount Moriah, his diffidence as a wooer, and his deathbed gullibility in the matter of Esau’s birthright.

God first revealed himself to an old man, Abraham, with an old man’s perspective, and it has been the Jews’ role to be the grownups with respect to the Gentile children of the world. The Hebrew Bible is suspicious of youth. It is not the sneaky young Jacob who steals his brother’s birthright, but the mature father who wrestles with the angel at the riverbank. It is not the arrogant young Joseph, but the elder statesman of Egypt who ensures the continuity of the Jewish people. And it is not the hotheaded young Prince of Egypt, but the 80-year old shepherd Moses who hears the voice of God from the burning bush.

Christian theologian Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888-1973), a Jewish convert to Protestantism, is best known today for published correspondence with Franz Rosenzweig. Rosenstock-Huessy’s neglected masterpiece Out of Revolution contains the following “digression” on the subject of anti-Semitism:

The anti-Semitic hatred of the Jew, in all its simplicity and straightforwardness, has always and necessarily been the hatred of the Beginning of things for the End. The outlook from the beginning is impossible once you have looked at the same thing from the end: yet that was the permanent conflict or tension forced upon paganism by the existence of the Hebrews … God’s Alpha was lived by the Gentiles, and God’s Omega is embodied in the Jews. This antithesis brought Pagans and Jews into a conflict of principle. The Jewish community, as a community was created by God to be his witness against the blindnesses of the Alpha-nations …

Whenever an old form is reluctant to go to its doom, like the church in the fifteenth century, or like Czarism before 1914, it defends its own obsolete and dying institutions by persecuting the Jew, the eternal symbol of a life beyond any existing form of government. Whenever a young generation tries to relive the first day of creation, it attacks the Jew because he smiles at this passionate belief in fugitive forms. In Germany during the orgies of Hitlerism a certain Jewish journalist was asked to correct the book of a Nazi authoress; and in return for the favor she agreed to take him to see Goebbels and Goering. After tea with them he came back as though enlightened and told his friends: “They cannot help persecuting us; they are playing Red Indians, and they know that we cannot take their game seriously.”

… A Jew can, of course, serve in the armies of his country with passion and devotion. But the Jewish community, as a community, has nothing to do with war between geographical units. It was created above and beyond all human divisions. It reminds men of the hope beyond their daily hopes, of a more important step to come. By their persecution the Gentiles defy this challenge from the side of Eternity and finality. They always accuse the Jew of provocation, because although he is quite capable of playing Red Indian out of love for his neighbors, he is incapable of any of their idolatries, and though he can shed his blood for his country, he will always feel that no skyscraper, no man-of-war, no Venus of Cnidos, and no glory of arms is more important than the tears of the widow or the sigh of the orphan. [2]

The Jews are too old to revel in the adoration of a child. This is painfully inconvenient for Jewish children, who in general are too young to be Jews, especially at Christmas-tide. Explaining the matter does not make it any more palatable. As far as your children are concerned, you are on your own.



[1] A J Heschel, The Earth is the Lord’s (Jewish Lights: Woodstock, Vermont 1995), page 16
[2] Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution (Argo Books: Norwich, VT 1969), pp. 225-227.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *