An Outsider’s View of an American Christmas

One of the most noticeable aspects of being in Israel is how the  Jewish calendar dominates, as well it should. Signs on buses offer good wishes for the holidays in September, bakeries sprout Chanukah delicacies in the winter, and school and government calendars are built around Jewish festival days.

Growing up in America, in my Italian-Catholic and Jewish neighborhood, come December, Christmas was the dominant feeling in the air. Whether it was the music in the supermarkets or on the radio, the brightly lit houses on my street, or the special Christmas cookies in the market (which, happily for us kids, were frequently kosher), it was impossible not to know what the season was.

It may not have been my holiday, but it was lovely.

As I recall it, things started changing in the 1970s, when those shouting about the “energy crisis” attempted to turn lighting up your house into a statement of selfishness rather than celebration. I can think of other factors that, over the next few decades, minimized Christmas Day. The devaluing of religion in general and households headed by single parents with less focus on building family traditions (especially ones that, even in our politically correct world, favor men as ones who are more comfortable with stringing electric wires high above the ground), are two that leap to mind.  While our Founding Fathers, those men who meticulously saw freedom of religion as an imperative, declared Christmas as a Federal holiday, since then,  confusion, lack of education, and outright hostility about the United States’ religious heritage transformed  ‘Merry Christmas’ into ‘Happy Holidays’ and then subsequently into, “I’m safer not saying anything.”

This year, the government response to COVID has struck another blow. Is this scientifically, politically, economically, or culturally driven? Most likely, all of the above are correct. This lays the onus on those of you to whom the day is a sacred, religious observance to ensure that in your homes, even if the gatherings are smaller, the practices of the day shine brightly.

Wishing you a merry Christmas,


17 thoughts on “An Outsider’s View of an American Christmas”

  1. Our gathering was a big as it ever was! lol. No Government “suggestion” is coming into our holiday or our home for that matter! Hope to see you all soon!😁

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Susan–
      I have no fears about the Gilliland home becoming subservient to outside ‘suggestions’! We should very soon coordinate movements to ensure we do meet.
      Warmest wishes

  2. A plethora of riches as Christians and Jewish folks share their holy days together. A Blessed and Merry Christmas to you as well, Susan!

  3. Dear Susan,

    Thank you for writing this piece. I am Jewish, and for the reasons you mentioned in your article, I specifically make it a point to wish my fellow Americans a Merry Christmas. I am very proud of my Jewish heritage, and would like to live in country where Christians stay proud of theirs.

    Our encounters usually include me wishing them a Merry Christmas and them responding back with Happy Holidays.

    I’m not sure if their response is due to the strong PC culture which we live in, or, considering the fact that they can visibly tell I don’t celebrate Christmas, consider it more fitting to respond that way.

    1. David, I think many businesses have trained employees not to say, “Merry Christmas” because of the blowback they get from what is usually a vocal minority of customers. With individuals, I think people are hesitant – it’s almost like you said a dirty word – or else, yes, your obvious Jewish appearance has them responding more generally and quite thoughtfully.

  4. Thank you so much Susan!
    I have tried for at least the last 9-10 years to teach my family (wife, 10yr son, 5yr and 2yr old daughters) the traditions of both Chanukah and Christmas.

    It is harder for me to celebrate the Chanukah traditions because I didn’t grow up with them.

    However, we light the chanukiah, eat foods cooked with oil (latkes – my fav), play the dreidel game, and read the ancient story of the Maccabean revolt. However, it does start to get a little overwhelming to try and celebrate both when they overlap. On the other hand, it is a blessing to see our two celebrations overlap about Light (revelation) coming into this World and standing against the onslaught of evil with Joy.

    *As side note, your podcasts have been so encouraging.

    Many blessings to You, Rabbi Lapin, and your family!

    1. Scott, we do not mix the two religions by celebrating Christmas customs – they aren’t ours – but we do enjoy seeing Christians doing so. I will pass on your kind words about the podcasts to my husband.

  5. Thank you for the thoughts. Please note that in many parts of the U.S. traditional Christmas remains.

  6. Great musing, Susan, but one correction.which is quite meaningful. Our founding fathers never declared Xmas as a National Holiday, and it still isn’t actually a National Holiday, The Federal Government doesn’t have the power to ordain a Holiday in all the States. It is a Federal Holiday, and applied only to Federal workers when It was passed by General Grant in 1870 June 28th as an unpaid Holiday for Federal workers only. There were a number of Federal Holidays declared at the time, including the 4th of July, and the reason was not so much religious as the need to give exhausted workers leisure time as it became obvious to what extent the overwork generated by the emerging Industrial revolution was debilitating them. It was also passed during reconstruction to hopefully find common ground to aid in healing the rift caused by the recently fought Civil War

    Please give my regards to the Rabbi
    Farrell Hope (Once of Muizenberg)

  7. Your thoughts are so appreciated! As a Christian, a Catholic, and (since 2012) a single mom, I might go overboard with Advent and Christmas traditions. And I do string a few lights outside, outdone by many neighbors, but I want the house to look cozy as my older children come home from their jobs in the dark. During December we eat special foods, watch special movies, read special books, and listen to special music. I even have a few special “ugly” shirts. 🙂 And of course at church things are different too— different vestments, different music, changed decor. I feel family and faith traditions are sustainers in difficult times. (Isn’t there a saying, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews” or something like that? A beautiful thought!) A book that shaped my views on this was Maria von Trapp’s “Around the Year with the Trapp Family.” She tells how it was the church calendar and family traditions that remained constant when they made their life-changing move from Austria to the United States. She described it like a mature tree being uprooted and planted somewhere else, only surviving because a great amount of familiar soil around its roots was moved with it. We are becoming a nation whose roots are not being protected, and the worst part is, it’s intentional. Well, I have had to be intentional too. We eat at least one meal together every day. We say evening prayers every day. We go to church every Sunday. We are so far from perfect and life is certainly not easy. I may look back and see a hundred things I could have done better. But I will never regret keeping the soil in place. It’s really the only thing I can do. When my first baby was born 24 years ago an older lady wrote me a note: “Congratulations! You are now a memory maker!” I refuse to let this crazy lefty agenda take that away. I am so thankful for inheriting stubbornness from my Polish grandparents. 🙂 (A friend from Virginia told me about a giant menorah lit during Hanukkah in a city whose name escapes me. The rabbi who put it up said the world needs more light. How true!) God bless you!

    1. I love your words, Kristyn. I very much enjoyed Maria von Trapp’s autobiography and comparing it with the Hollywood version. The analogy of soil is a beautiful one.

  8. As a Christian, I’ve been blessed by having the Lapin’s in my life for well over a decade. I appreciate your thoughts today Susan, thank you.

  9. Thank you, Susan. I grew up in Minneapolis and it was the same beautiful mix of cultures and religions. We all enjoyed one another’s holidays and the traditions that went along with them. How I miss the days when we embraced one another’s differences instead of using them for reasons to divide.
    Wishing you God’s blessings in all you do!

    1. You said it so well, Patti. The push is to use everything to divide us – religion, color, ethnicity, gender…And that makes for a sad world.

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