Although I am Jewish, I have celebrated Christmas most of my life. I was born in post-war Poland, the only child of two Holocaust survivors. We lived in Warsaw and had several relatives living there who had converted to Catholicism before the war. I actually had no knowledge that some of us were Jewish and others Catholic. They and their children were always considered family.
We were living in a country that was officially Communist, but also had deep roots in Catholicism. It was a country that had been devastated by the war and was still in very poor economic straits. Products -- including food -- were scarce. It is difficult for any of us living in Canada now to imagine Christmas without the media. But when I was growing up in Poland, the media had minimal impact on our ideas and desires about Christmas. Poland had no television then, and all the other media were state-controlled. I do recall hearing Christmas carols on the radio, but these were part of the regional folk culture.
Christmas was a time of year when my mother and I would make tree decorations from silver paper, nuts and some cookies. I would receive a present or two -- one Christmas, my grandmother gave me a lovely red children's purse with a few pennies in it. We would also have food that we did not have at other times of the year, delicacies such as oranges, nuts, dates and little animals made from marzipan.
By my 10th birthday, we had left Poland and arrived in Canada. We now had a television set, and I learned a great deal about North American life from this box, including the whole range of ways one should approach and celebrate Christmas. Listening to the radio, I learned the tunes and words to all the Christmas carols, and going to a school in Montreal that was part of the Protestant school board, I quickly absorbed the layers of traditions, practices and values that make up Christmas. And I loved it. It came as quite a surprise to me that because I was Jewish I was not supposed to participate in all this fun. We still had a Christmas tree, but I also realized that it was not quite "kosher." My parents had many friends who were not Jewish, so we spent Christmas with them.
Often, when Christians learn that I am Jewish, the first question they ask is, "Do you celebrate Christmas?" My standard answer is, "Certainly. Why wouldn't I want to celebrate the birth of a good
Jewish boy?" Many people are taken aback by my answer -- some even seem offended. Yet I think it is very important that we realize and recognize the common roots of these two heritages. Christmas can be a great meeting place for Christians and Jews.
The second question that many Christians ask me is, "How do you feel not getting gifts at Christmastime?" My answer is rooted in my childhood experiences. I grew up in a family where we shared and gave gifts easily at many times of the year. The gifts, however, were usually more symbolic (such as flowers) than a representation of wealth and status. We did not experience the pressures of commerce to buy, buy, buy. I do not wish to romanticize a tragic situation, the result of a terrible war. And I am glad that most of my friends have never experienced that kind of life. My point is simply that the giving and receiving of lavish gifts is not central to my experience of Christmas.
Christmas and Hanukkah for me are a time when the darkness of the year is pierced by the warmth and joy of being with others who want to share music, food, drink and some expression of our affection for one another. This is probably not typical of Jewish people, nor do I necessarily think that it should be. But I am extremely grateful to all my friends who for many years have shared Christmas with me. And I have always been delighted to be part of the celebration.
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