Yesterday was the First Night of Chanukah; today is the Solstice; so here is an old essay of mine that comes out at this time of year as regularly as the Chanukah Bush is erected in the drawing room, baubles are retrieved from the loft, and It’s a Wonderful Life is aired on the DVD Player des Girrafes.
As all King Herod Fans will know, there is a special connection between the Christmas season and the activities of the Tyrannical Old Rogue we all Love to Hate, and while we’re musing on that theme, we are inclined to ask ourselves whether we Jews should celebrate Christmas, or even acknowledge its presence.
The short answer is ‘no’. In its strictest sense, Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, whose divine nature is central to the Christian religion. Jews and Moslems acknowledge the contribution of Jesus as a historical figure and teacher, but are less inclined to accept the messianic status that history has willed upon him. Therefore it does not seem fitting for non-Christians to celebrate the birth of Christ any more than they might the birth of Moses or Mohammed.
That being said, Christmas as a cultural phenomenon semi-detached from Christianity itself is very hard to ignore, unless you belong to an ultra-Orthodox community whose dealings with the outside world are negligible. Such Jews are relatively rare and scattered, and as Jews in general become more assimilated into the general population, the question of how all but the ultra-Orthodox should respond to Christmas becomes more pressing. It is no longer possible (as it was, say, for a venerable colleague of ours who grew up in the now-vanished Jewish East End) for a Jew in Britain to reach teenage years without ever having seen a Christmas tree.
One could argue that Jews should participate in the general festivities to some degree, simply out of respect for the traditions and customs of the countries in which they find themselves. As a people long without a homeland, Jews have become very good at such accommodation. This has affected all Jews, no matter how small their interaction with their host community. After all, Jews have always been quick to learn the languages and customs of their hosts: the conservative dress of very religious Jews owes much more to the traditional wear of Eastern and Central Europe than to the ancient Kingdom of Israel.
To apply some quasi-Talmudic reasoning, one might argue that there is no reason why Jews shouldn’t participate in Christmas simply as a vernacular mid-winter festival, as the festival owes much, perhaps more, to pre-Christian tradition than it does to the birth of Christ. As a proselytising religion, Christianity has always been ready to assimilate pre-existing beliefs into its traditions, a process known as syncretism. The celebration of Christmas specifically at midwinter (for nobody knows precisely when Jesus was born) harks to older traditions of rebirth and the renewal of life at this season, fitting very well with ancient commemoration of the winter solstice, in the hope and expectation of the coming of spring. As a festival, Christmas did not exist before the fourth century, and when the churchmen of old decided to institute one, they made the birth of Christ coincide with the pagan festival of Sol Invictus Natalis, the Birth of the Conquering Sun, whose renewal was celebrated at midwinter . When the Gospels celebrate the birth of Christ, it is often in terms of light banishing darkness, for example Matthew 4, 16: “The people that sat in darkness saw a great light, and to them that sat in the region and shadow of death, to them did light spring up”.
The character of Father Christmas exemplifies this ancient tradition of using the turn of the year to mark birth and renewal. We assume that Father Christmas has worn his white-trimmed red garb since time immemorial, but this is not so: this dates from as recently as 1931, when the Coca-Cola company changed Father Christmas’s colour to Coke’s red-and-white livery for an advertising campaign. Before that date, Father Christmas was customarily dressed in green, and was often garlanded with the holly, ivy and other evergreens so associated with midwinter. It is a tribute to the success of Coca-Cola as a brand that it changed our perception of Christmas so completely.
Once one sees Father Christmas as green, he is instantly recognizable as the northern folk character of the Green Man, often garlanded with vegetation or associated with forests, who pops up in tales such as Gawain and the Green Knight (as the eponymous Knight who pointedly remains alive even when decapitated); folkloric figures such as Jack-in-the Green and Robin Goodfellow (the Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and in interesting grotesque details of church architecture – and who is specifically associated with midwinter, the coming of spring, and with darker overtones of blood and sacrifice. That the Green Man has crept into church architecture illustrates the syncretistic nature of Christianity very well, as does the association of what is probably an ancient fertility deity with ‘Saint Nicholas’, hence ‘Santa’: and the oft-made link between the bright red of holly berries and the circumstances of rebirth and sacrifice in the Crucifixion.
But to continue this Talmudic debate: once one allows that Christmas is essentially a pre-Christian festival, does the dissociation between Christianity and the festival (purely as a festival) offer any excuse for Jews in celebratory mood? The answer is, again, ‘no’. If Jewish tradition actually says very little about Christianity (given that much of Jewish tradition is itself pre-Christian, and its modern rabbinic form was formulated mainly in places such as Babylonia, oustide the Christian orbit) it speaks most emphatically against pagan ritual. The Bible is full of patriarchal figures spurning idolatry, whether Abraham in his acceptance of the One God, Moses and the whole Golden Calf Incident, or the various prophets competing with the Priests of Baal and sundry other Canaanite impediments to monotheistic hegemony.
Interestingly, and for all the modish talk of Judaeo-Christian tradition set in opposition to radical Islam, the very clear Jewish position on these issues demonstrates closer parallels with Islam than with Christianity. The Jewish response to the influence of other religions has always been uncompromising, similar to the tendency in Islam, when it becomes established in a new country, to suppress in all adherents any previous religious, historical, nostalgic or folkloric affiliation or affection. Muslims take on new, Arabic names, just as Jews take on Hebrew ones: and as once the Jews of ancient Israel sought to expunge pre-Judaic tradition by all possible means (including warfare and genocide), modern Islamic states seek to destroy all signs of pre-existing religion. The destruction by the Taleban of the historic Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001 is sufficient witness to this tendency. To take a very long view, this was no more an isolated case of cultural and religious imperialism than – say – Joshua’s destruction of Jericho.
I would, however, counter that even such unbending creeds as Judaism are prey to the slow corrosion of syncretism. Purim is perhaps the best example of this process in action. This festival, always celebrated early in Spring, is perhaps the most peculiar of any in the Jewish calendar. The Purim story, from the Book of Esther, is more of a pantomime than a regular Biblical tale: it is perhaps no coincidence that the Book of Esther is the only one in the Bible in which God is not mentioned at all.
Instead we have what appears to be a bowdlerized mishmash of earlier Babylonian and Persian folkloric traditions. Esther and Mordechai look rather like the Babylonian deities Ishtar and Marduk; the villain Haman looks suspiciously like Ahariman, the demon king of Zoroastrian tradition; and the story itself has more than a whiff of the 1001 Nights. The tradition of performing a play at Purim in which these stock characters are featured resembles nothing so much as an English medieval ‘mummers’ or mystery play. From this it is quite evident that Purim was a vernacular Spring festival that was co-opted into the Jewish calendar, in the same way that Sol Invictus Natalis became Christmas.
As if any proof were needed, rabbinic teaching has long recognized the special nature of Purim in a marvelous case of ironic humor, for Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar, is referred to as Yom Ha-Ki-Purim, ‘The Day that is like Purim’, even though the literally godless burlesque of Purim is as far removed from the sanctity of Yom Kippur as possible. There are doubtlessly many ways of interpreting this odd comparison. Mine (which is not original) would be to suggest that were the world a perfect place, and nobody had had any sins that required atonement on Yom Kippur, then there would be no need for it – and perhaps no need for God, either, and we might as well party as if we were all pagans, free of the covenants and responsibilities that bind all Jews. The irony is that this blameless state is unlikely if not impossible, given even the smallest sin requires God’s presence and forgiveness, and so Purim and Yom Kippur will always remain poles apart.
Chanukah is another example of syncretism in the Jewish calendar, although perhaps not as immediately obvious as Purim. Although always celebrated during the winter, the rationale for Chanukah is less clear. Unlike Passover or Yom Kippur, say, it is not part of the liturgical round of the Jewish year, and is mentioned only in the apocryphal books of the Maccabees. Indeed, the Miracle of the Oil is mentioned only in a deeply buried page of the Talmud. It seems possible, however, that in its beginning Chanukah was a midwinter festival of lights that celebrates rebirth — either metaphorically (the lighting of the candles and the miracle of the oil) or in politically concrete terms with the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks, and the rebirth of the Jewish Kingdom. One might argue, therefore, that Chanukah is a Jewish festival bolted onto older pagan and pastoral roots, like Purim, or indeed Christmas.
Whether or not this hypothesis (that Chanukah owes its existence to pre-Judaic custom) holds any water, and even if it doesn’t, I can offer one last-ditch justification for Jews, or indeed people of any religion, to celebrate Christmas, in the sense of a midwinter festival.
The winter solstice is not some religious abstraction, or a symptom of pagan unbelief, but an astronomical fact. That the days will start to lengthen is undeniable, and spring will undoubtedly follow. Even though we no longer feel the need to sacrifice people to large green men to ensure such a happy outcome, we may wish to thank God for the changes in the seasons, and that winter – with its gloomy austerities – will come to an end.
However, stuck here as we are in the dismal depths of December, the final end of winter is still several months away: in the meantime, it’s a fine idea to have a jolly good party, full of lights, decorations, food and drink, and the companionship of our friends and family, if only to maintain our spiritual wellbeing (that is, to cheer ourselves up.) Jews as much as anyone should appreciate the importance of a knees-up, especially if there is food, drink and good company to be had.
However, when it comes to midwinter festivities, Christmas has all the best tunes. Anyone who cannot appreciate the loveliness of a well-turned Christmas carol, the grandeur of Midnight Mass or the beauty of a Hall Decked with Boughs of Holly – and the ancient traditions these things represent, the manifold expressions of hope in the midst of darkness – has no poetry in their soul.
With such hope comes the tolerance and fellow-feeling that are traditional accompaniments of the season. My favourite expression of this is in the traditional liturgical Latin. Gloria in excelsis Deo, runs the line, et in terra Paxo minibus – glory to God in the highest, and on earth, bring in the sage and onion stuffing by the busload. No adherent of any religion can possibly disagree.
Chag Sameach Chanukah to you all. Each and Every One!