I didn’t grow up in a religious home. I knew I was Jewish and knew it was important that I know that. Together with my parents, I came to America as a refugee from the former Soviet Union in 1979. The anti-Semitism drove my parents out. They wanted to live in a country where their religion didn’t prevent them from going to college or getting a job or procuring an apartment.
In New York City, home to over one million Jews, my parents felt free to wear Star of David and Chai necklaces but never stepped foot inside a synagogue unless it was mandated for a Bar Mitzvah or wedding. When it came time for the December holidays at school and kids did the “Are you Christmas or Chanukah” survey, I was proudly “Team Chanukah.”
In junior high school, I was in the chorus for two years (got in by singing the theme to the Brady Bunch) and had the opportunity to perform at the Staten Island Mall for the holidays, the iconic Pan Am Building (now the MetLife building), as well as Carnegie Hall. In those years, I learned dozens of Christmas songs and loved them all, excited to be able to sing along to a month’s worth of radio as I wiped down counters at the family donut shop.
Initially, I felt a sense of guilt for loving the Christmas songs so much, almost like I violated my religion. I didn’t keep kosher so eating BLT sandwiches never felt as much as a breach of religion as how much these Christmas carols could penetrate my soul; “Ave Maria” and “Silent Night” get me every single time.
Last week my daughter came home from her musical theater class telling me they were working on a Christmas song, “Don’t worry mom, it doesn’t have any Jesus or Santa in it, it’s just about winter.”
“Oh that’s OK,” I said, “I love Christmas songs!”
“You know,” my husband chimed in, “many Christmas songs were actually written by Jews. The song you’re doing, Winter Wonderland was, as well as Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow, and one of the most famous ones, White Christmas, which is the best-selling single ever.”
“You know, our teachers asked if there is anyone in the class who didn’t celebrate Christmas and I raised my hand,” my daughter explained. “Then she said, ‘Really? No one in your family celebrates Christmas? Not even your parents or grandparents?’ She was so shocked and I said, ‘No, no one at all.’”
I laughed. It’s funny in 2016, living in such an urban multicultural area, with plenty of Jews, there are still people shocked to learn Jesus’ birthday doesn’t mean anything to us. We don’t feel nostalgic for three wise men or yearn to sing hymns or gather around the table, heads bowed for grace. It’s just a day off, no more sacred to us than Columbus Day or President’s Day.
The songs, though often deity specific, cross religions and cultures by creating a feeling of camaraderie, warmth, celebration, and joy. I say cheers to Christmas carols.