Every year one of my Jewish friends will try to explain how lame Chanukah is and how it couldn’t possibly stand up against the awesome power of Christmas. With a junkie’s conviction they tell you how much they love all of it: snow! Reindeer! Stop animation TV specials and the mountain of presents under that glorious tree, with the needles that smell like they’ve been hauled out of some magical forest just yesterday!

From an outsider’s perspective I can tell you I enjoy nothing more than Chanukah. It’s mature, it’s subtle, it’s cool: Chanukah is the key swapping cocktail party that outshines the Christmas kegger.

Ever since I married a Jewish woman ten years ago I’ve been a Chanukah man. I did not convert to Judaism when we got married, mostly because the rabbi who married us admitted that the Ark of the Covenant does not in fact have the ability to melt Nazis. When forced to categorize myself I go with “Rod Carew Jew.” Adam Sandler is wrong: Hall of Fame slugger Rod Carew married a Jewish woman, observed the holidays and raised his children Jewish, but never converted.

I was raised Catholic, and went through most of the big steps: I was an altar boy and was confirmed. After I left the Church in high school, I felt uncomfortable celebrating Christmas. The holiday is too wrapped up in the celebration of li’l baby Jesus, to the point where every symbol is loaded. When everyone else had Rudolph, I was looking at the manger scene in the creche our family set up every year.

It’s not that I went to a very strict, traditional Catholic Church. There was no fire or brimstone. We went to the folk Mass, the priest had a beard and long hair and looked like a dead ringer for the Big Guy himself. Even the Communion was different – instead of those stale white Communion discs they served chunks of fresh whole wheat bread. Add some Cheddar cubes of Christ and an apple slice of Christ to the Body of Christ and you had a solid appetizer.

Even without constant reminders of how sinful we were, Christmas as a religious holiday trumped all the commercial aspects: we were reminded of the Miracle of Jesus’ birth, and that slew of presents we’d get the morning after Midnight Mass had to be complemented by some acts of charity for the less fortunate. I was reminded over and over that I could enjoy Christmas, just not enjoy it too much.

When you go from very serious, Altar Boy who studies the Lives of the Saints to a devout atheist, all that remains is a horror show of materialism. Any religious fanatic/pundit who’s worried about the secular left waging a War Against Christmas is chasing the wrong people: the secular left did not create the Tickle Me Elmo stampedes at the local mall.

This not coming from the Grinch, but the Lorax. Modern Christmas is an environmental travesty: the plastic both in the toys and the packaging rivals the petroleum from the BP oil disaster. You really need go no further than those giant lit up inflatable lawn ornaments that require power not just for their internal lights but for the fan that keeps Frosty fat. In tree-hugging Portland we have the garish Peacock Lane, a street where the real estate covenants and conditions for each house compels them to be tarted up for Christmas, attracting lines of cars from all over and rivals the power bills and vehicular congestion of the Vegas strip.

Even without overdone lights and phthalate-oozing Santas, I’m uncomfortable with the wreaths and trees. You can tell me that these are pagan winter signs, but before we get all cozied up with the pagans remember that these are the people who brought us virgin sacrifice.

At a wreath-making party the other night my host tried to convince me that in her utterly atheist household there was no religious agenda, but I couldn’t quite articulate the worry that behind ever innocent wreath is somebody trying to sell me some frankincense and myrrh, and reminding me to feel bad because that sweet little baby Jesus is going to be crushed by some combination of the Romans, the Jews and Mel Gibson in a mere three months on Good Friday.

My yuletide insanity has calmed over time. I can see that lights and candles are a non-denominational statement against winter’s long dark five o’clock shadow. Candles are my preferred light source and I’ve unsuccessfully argued that we should keep the Jack-o-lanterns lit from Halloween until the Vernal Equinox. If you need to do lights why not just as an accent to your trees and structures rather than a beaded curtain? But please, keep the lights white: we’re not advertising a titty bar.

The eight nights of Chanukah give me a much needed break from my Christmas crazies. Because it’s not anywhere near as important in religious significance as Passover or Yom Kippur, it’s easier for me to enjoy in a secular fashion without any sense that I’m doing something profane. The story behind it involves a battle victory between two groups of people I’ve never heard of and there’s some long-lasting lamp oil which I think they used to make latkes.

In my house Chanukah is a casual affair, a mellow family cocktail party that starts at sundown, and ends when the candles have burned.  Celebrating at night it feels a little more mature. Christmas, seriously, who starts a party at seven in the morning? A few nights feature latkes and applesauce, and each evening we say the Hebrew prayers as we light them  – what I don’t believe can’t hurt me. Then we hide the presents and the kids play hot and cold until they find them.

Then it’s over: the drama around the present you didn’t get quickly fades because of the possibility of the next night. Some nights the kids get a pile of presents, as there’s no point in getting in the way of two grandmothers spoiling their grandchildren, but we never experience the Christmas afternoon meth crash when every last gift has been opened and the kids wild eyed and pouting in a sea of shredded gift wrap.

The one problem I have is that the dates shift, and I’m caught off guard when the holiday is over by the second week of December. If they start putting out the Chanukah decorations at the store right after Halloween, especially for years when it starts the week after Thanksgiving, the holiday would be perfect.

In  the best years Christmas falls right in the middle of Chanukah and passes by unnoticed. It’s lonely when, like this year, Chanukah is barely a memory by the time Christmas arrives, and my family shuffles around wondering what to do with ourselves until we pick from the Holy Trinity of movies, the mountain and Chinese food.

 

Photo of Burl Ives, who ruined Christmas.

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G. XAVIER ROBILLARD is a comedy writer, performer and novelist. His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Comedy Central and on NPR. Robillard is the author of the comic novel Captain Freedom: A Superhero's Quest for Truth, Justice and the Celebrity He So Richly Deserves (Harper Collins), and producer/writer/performer of the comedy album G is for Gangsta. You may entertain yourself with more of him at All Day Coffee and on Twitter.

7 responses to “A Christmas Defector”

  1. Quenby Moone says:

    Phthalates are what make Christmas! You can’t have one without the other!

    You are a crusty Christmas curmudgeon after my own heart, sir. Although I will admit to an addiction for lights, lights and more lights the longer and grayer the nights get. In fact this year I decorated our lemon tree but it was too small to drench in lights so I hauled out our ceramic houses which you throw candles in looking charmingly Germanic and quaint. I’m sure you wouldn’t be overly offended by our Christmas display.

    I live blocks from Peacock Lame, and we always dream of what our display would look like if we were forced to exhibit proper Christmas® Cheer™. I’m pretty sure it would look as though we had a direct elevator to the gates of hell, populated by all manner of pagan icons, including Pan, maenads and Bacchannalian revelry. Ours would be the best display on the whole block and no-one could say shit because—well–it was decorated, wasn’t it???

    As to the Xmas tree, my father, both an art historian and a staunch defender of his pagan tree always mentioned that “The god Attis got his nuts cut off and was reborn as a pine tree. You don’t about hear that in Sunday school.”

  2. I was thinking the best manger display was a naked Kevin Bacon replacing baby J in the film “Diner.” I wonder if you can rent him for that by the hour?

  3. Art Edwards says:

    One of these days, Hawaii, from Dec. 23-Jan. 2. Not this year, but one of these days.

    Lovely piece.

    Art

  4. Simon Smithson says:

    In regards to your ‘we’re not lighting a titty bar’ comment…

  5. Summer Block says:

    Nice work! I just posted a piece on here that’s pretty much the exact opposite of yours, so I wanted to say hi, nice work, and extend the olive pine branch on behalf of Christmas lovers. Only I agree with you 100% about the tacky plastic stuff, but you’ll find you can have a quite tasteful Christmas if you’re the kind of lunatic who wants to spend hours each evening handcrafting lawn ornaments from local flora.

  6. Gloria says:

    Add some Cheddar cubes of Christ and an apple slice of Christ to the Body of Christ and you had a solid appetizer. – – ha ha ha ha ha

    I was not raised Catholic (I was loosely raised Methodist, but only sort of, and I’d say I’m more a devout Heathen than anything) but I did get to attend church with a Catholic friend once, many years ago. I was at brunch with some friends the other day and they were talking about going to mass. I got really excited and said, “Oooh! Do you get to eat the Eucharist?” They looked at me like I was insane and pointed out that “eat” is not the proper verb. Pssh. Says who? You get grape juice and a cracker – that’s a frickin’ snack!

    …the secular left did not create the Tickle Me Elmo stampedes at the local mall. – – sing it!

    I used to work at The Horse Brass many years ago. During the Peacock Lane shenanigans, we would sell hay ride tickets. It was a mad house.

    I liked this, G. You make some great points about consumerism as it relates to tradition – especially tradition steeped in religion. Very thoughtful. (Now, can we talk about the waste associated with Halloween, Valentine’s Day [which was invented by corporations – true story], and Easter?)

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