Human beings are conformists by nature. If everyone else is caroling, we feel we should be caroling too.
In the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch did an experiment in which a group of nine was asked to match lines of varying lengths. Eight of the nine were told in advance to make the wrong match. Even though the correct answer was obvious, that ninth person, the subject, went along with the crowd (seven others answered first) 12 out of 18 times; and even denied being influenced by the others’ answers.
Back to Christmas. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, we are told, by society, media, friends, family; or at least the first three. I grew up surrounded by the Christmas spirit everywhere but home. I went to public school in Hamilton, where I was typically the only Jewish kid in class. I enjoyed singing along to the “Batman smells” rendition of “Jingle Bells,” because it was non-denominational. Otherwise, I’d maintain a sullen silence during the Christ-heavy carols, though I admit that I did and do find the “Little Drummer Boy” melody to be soul-stirring.
Buoyed by a stubborn nature and stiff-necked heritage, I didn’t conform. (Although you could say that I did conform, just to my religious upbringing instead of society at large; we always conform to something.)
But society at large looms, well, large. A Hindu friend had a Christmas tree growing up and got presents, because there isn’t necessarily anything religious about pretty lights and action figures in red-and-green wrapping paper. And, in fact, the tradition of giving gifts on Chanukah only emerged in response to Christmas as a way to ease Jewish kids’ jealousy.
According to the Pew Research Center, nine-in-ten Americans claim to celebrate Christmas, including 81% of non-Christians. If Christmas was a search engine, it would be Google. If it was an online retailer, it would be Amazon. Outraged Fox News pundits speak out against a “War on Christmas,” but from the perspective of a Jewish kid in Hamilton public school, a war on Christmas is equivalent to a Canadian invasion of the US. Christmas could throw a victory party about two seconds after the war started.
As a little contrarian, I related to Scrooge’s “bah, humbug,” attitude to Christmas, and felt a smug satisfaction at having never believed the Santa lie. But nowadays, being older and wiser, or at least wearier, I accept “Peace on earth and good will toward men” as a generally noble aim, and hold no strong opinions about Santa. “Little Drummer Boy” and “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” tug the heartstrings. A Christmas Carol holds lessons for us all. Well-lit trees are objectively attractive. So why not learn to stop worrying and love Christmas?
For one thing, buying the right gifts for the right people sounds stressful and expensive, and I’m happy to have an excuse not to join the shopping scramble. Perhaps more importantly, I don’t believe in “the reason for the season,” and I’d be “taking the Christ out of Christmas” by only celebrating on a superficial level. Nominal Christians do celebrate Christmas only on a superficial level, of course, but they have warm memories of Christmases past to provide emotional depth, or at least experience some guilt about it. I have no emotional investment in Christmas, and my guilt is of the Jewish variety.
In 2007, Premier Dalton McGuinty created a new holiday for Ontarians called Family Day, because everyone likes a holiday and no one could possibly be offended by a day devoted to family. As a non-Christian with no associated family traditions, if I were to celebrate Christmas, I'd be reducing something holy and meaningful to a glorified, more well-established Family Day. Out of simplicity and respect, I’d rather just celebrate Family Day.
Finally, while it’s true that nonconformists are just conforming to their minority conformity, a variety of minority conformities makes for a more interesting whole. Chanukah is the story of Judeans resisting assimilation into the dominant monoculture of the time and place, Hellenism. In that vein, if Christmas is the Anheuser-Busch of the holiday market, Chanukah is a microbrewery. It’s not for everyone, and not intended to be, but I prefer a world with multiple holiday spirits on tap.
Ben Shragge is the digital editor of the Hamilton Jewish News. He currently resides in Boston.