I was never a very good Christian.
The main problem was that I was always asking for logic and internal consistency. I couldn’t understand why a monotheistic faith had divided God into a Trinity, for one thing. And the Virgin birth? The Resurrection?
The answer was always “You have to have Faith” and “It’s God’s Grace”.
That never really felt terribly convincing to me. Now, I know that Christianity doesn’t, and didn’t, owe me convincing explanations, but it wasn’t enough for me to simply Believe.
But I did love the hymns. And Christmas carols.
Many converts to Judaism struggle with the Christmas season. There are so many lovely traditions, and trappings, and it’s all so feel-good, and besides, the ENTIRE WORLD is wrapped up in the celebration. Remember that Coke commercial from about 40 years ago? With the whole world singing around the biggest Christmas tree ever? Everyone was celebrating Christmas, weren’t they?f
Now, of course, I am among the quiet minority of onlookers. You wish us “Merry Christmas”, and we wish you a “Merry Christmas”. Sometimes, it’s “Happy Holidays”, and sometimes you wish us a Happy Hanukkah, usually without realizing that Hanukkah is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, and, unlike most other holidays in the Jewish calendar, has no basis in the Bible. Sure, Hanukkah has some fun traditions associated with it – latkes (potato pancakes) are yummy, and sufganyot (jelly-filled donuts) are even more yummy! The increasing light of the menorah, as we light one more candle each night, is a welcome symbol in the middle of the darkness of winter. For me, those candles remind me of the increasing light of the Advent candles that were lit in the church in the four weeks before Christmas – each symbolizing an aspect of preparing for the coming miracle:
And, it was many years before I stopped yearning to go out Christmas caroling! Carols are so singable, and many have such lovely harmonies. I still don’t know the Hanukkah “anthem” – Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages) – by heart. And, it’s not that catchy a tune. Now, there are some other nice Hanukkah season songs, which I’ve been learning better and better over the years of singing with Zemer Chai, but the songs aren’t yet really integrated into my repertoire, in the way that Christmas carols were.
Which brings me to the Twelve Days of Christmas – an all-time favorite!! It’s got a great tune, it has repetition that is always great for teaching to children, and to people who might not know the song (in Judaism, we have a great Passover song that has the same idea, counting up to 13 – Who Knows One – and my favorite version is in yiddish – Mu Asapru, click to here Theodore Bikel sing it!). So, when are the 12 days of Christmas? The first day of Christmas is on Christmas Day itself, and then the count ends 12 days later, on January 5 or 6th, depending on the tradition you follow. The twelfth day of Christmas marks Epiphany, the date that the Wise Men/Magi/Three Kings visited the baby Jesus and bestowed their gifts (which were as ridiculous as the gifts in the song!).
Which links this funny, silly, song with it’s strange references to Lords A’Leaping, and Geese A’Laying, to a very religiously significant association of dates, which falls after, not before, the celebration of Christmas, which made reading this lovely book difficult for me. Among the From Left To Write book club members, there was a discussion about the book prior to the posting of the online discussion, which I started, because of my discomfort with the absence of a religious connection to the story, when it’s centered around such a religious holiday. And it really troubled me that the book focused on decorations, on acquisition of a tree, on shopping for gifts, and, preparing food for holiday festive meals to share with one’s family – without a single mention of attending church, or giving to a charitable organization, or how the miracle of Christmas (if you believe in it) might offer solace or consolation in a time of grieving.
There is no question that losing someone you love – a parent, a spouse, a child – right before a major holiday is particularly hard. In Jewish tradition, grief and mourning are prescribed in a clear, formulaic manner. There is the shiva period (shiva = seven), a week of mourning which includes sitting on low stools or the floor instead of chairs, not wearing leather shoes, not shaving or cutting hair, not wearing cosmetics, not working, and not doing things for comfort or pleasure, such as bathing, having sex, putting on fresh clothing, or studying Torah (except Torah related to mourning and grief) (excerpted from Judaism 101: Life, Death and Mourning).
However, if a death occurs close to the celebration of a major holiday, such as Passover, or Sukkot, the holiday takes precedence, and the Shiva observance is terminated with the onset of the holiday. I know that for many of my friends and acquaintances, this rule has been very hard, and seems so unfair to the mourners – whose grief isn’t terminated just by the arrival of a holiday.
Death is hard. No question. And, my personal belief is that our society, particularly in America, has separated the experience of death from our living experience to such an extent that we don’t really know how to cope with it. We don’t often see people die, because death so infrequently occurs at home, whereas, that was the normal place for a person to die in previous centuries. Like birth, we’ve medicalized and pathologized death, and made the place of death more likely to be in an intensive care unit, surrounded by beeping machines, and uncomfortable procedures and less likely to have the comfort and support of our loved ones and family around us as we pass from this life.
And then, when the death has occurred, we tell the mourner to move on, get back to life, put the past behind.
It’s cruel, and not at all in tune with the way we grieve. Even after decades, I can be caught with tears in my eyes thinking of my father, and how intensely I miss him. And other days are easy.
Grief is an unpredictable beast, that hides and emerges sometimes at the most inopportune times. We need to recover our traditions, or make new ones, to help the griever cope with the loss. Yes, we move on, but not by denying the reality of Death. We accept Death, and move on into Life with the knowledge that Death is a constant and unavoidable companion.
Oh, and do I miss Christmas traditions, and particularly the songs and carols still? Not at all. The richness of Judaism, and the musical traditions of the entire year fill my soul with comfort, inspiration, and the sense of touching the Divine. I hope that, if you celebrate Christmas or any other traditional or nontraditional holiday celebration, your observance does the same for you!
This post was inspired by The 13th Gift by Joanne Huist Smith, memoir about how random acts of kindness transformed her family’s bereavement and grief during the holidays.
Join From Left to Write on October 28th as we discuss The 13th Gift. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.