How the Maccabees stole Christmas - review

On Shabbat 9th December in the small hall at FPS, thirty or so welcome members of our community, gathered to ponder the Chanukah and Christmas dilemma,* how mixed faith families manage the winter festive season. This year the 25th Tevet, the first day of Chanukah, falls on 25th December, a coincidence that enlivened our conversation.

The panel consisted of Daniel Cainer, entertainer, story-teller and songsmith extraordinaire, who had travelled east from Shepherds (watch their flocks by night) Bush to regale us with his memories, anecdotes and music. Rabbi Rebecca had sojourned from across the corridor from our own Sanctuary, the large hall; she too shared some thoughts and a spiffing quiz on the Feast of Dedication aka Chanukah. I sat betwixt them, completing the panel of three (and if any comparison was drawn by the audience with “the three wise men,” this would have been entirely understandable).   

After introductions, we opened with a discussion about the commercialisation of Christmas and Chanukah. This provoked an outpouring of responses. The giving of presents for either/both Chanukah and Christmas was quite split between the ayes and noes. However, when the young folk were asked if they liked presents, to our astonishment, most said they did. Some adults were against presents altogether, some adults felt that giving was the pleasure; some thought receiving was the pleasure and Daniel Cainer said he was all forgiving, which was kind of him. 

Some of us eschewed any kind of Christmas celebration, including trees (even Chanukah bushes) and presents, and assiduously avoided tinsel and bling; while others felt Christmassy traditions were not religious, rather festivities to enliven the dull winter season. Some spoke of having made a transition from orthodox Judaism, where Christmas had been ignored, to some accommodation of Yuletide, whereas others had been brought up with Christmas in some shape or form, and missed not having it; another expressed how now, after making a full commitment to Judaism, the demands of Christmas celebrations sat uneasily. This led us to think about our own stances in relation to our immediate and extended families’ December-time preferences, and we considered the tensions that can arise. Rabbi Rebecca here introduced the central Jewish concept of Shalom Bayit, meaning peaceful home, which emphasises the importance of harmony at home, and with family, a sentiment which could be drawn on helpfully.

We spoke of turkeys, reindeer, carrots, Chanukah candles (over the total eight days, 44 candles are lit, including the shammus), whether on Christmas eve to leave out mince pies and milk or gefilte fish and Palwin No. 10 for Santa, and we sang Ma’oz Tzur. We shared stories. And Daniel Cainer delighted us with a private performance of two of his songs.

On a thoughtful note, Rabbi Rebecca, while acknowledging the important messages of Chanukah, shared her personal quandary as to whether the Maccabees had, in general, been too inflexible and unwilling to integrate Hellenistic elements into their own social and religious systems; she speculated whether this nearly cost us the unbroken religious and cultural tradition that continues to this day. In saying this, she reinforced the ethos of Liberal Jews which encourages us to be full members of our communities and open and inclusive. This was echoed by Rabbi Danny Rich when he told us how he says “Merry Christmas” many hundreds of times over the season, especially on Christmas Day, when, every year, he goes out with the Mayor of London, visiting Christian communities.

What else is there to say of gathering? Well, after about an hour and once the chocolate was consumed, to our surprise, the younger children lost interest and went outside to play, liberating Daniel Cainer to give a fabulous rendition of his (adult and hilarious) composition Bad Rabbis. Also, and, on a different note, we were reassured that we Jews need not feel envious of Santa, a kindly, berobed and behatted, elderly gentleman; we have many of our own aged, sages to celebrate, including Rambam and Hillel (admittedly, it is unlikely they travelled on sleighs pulled by reindeer) whose profound offerings have continued to enrich our lives, potentially every day and not just one day a year.  In the best Jewish tradition, we were reminded too that mitzvot are always important, so if you do find Santa stuck down your chimney on 24th Kislev/December, be menschlich and rescue him; but, whatever you do, do not greet him with Good Yomtov, - for Chanukah is a minor festival, so please use the salutation Chag Sameach instead, or indeed, Merry Christmas!

*It is probably true to say that the younger members’ dilemmas were focused on whether they would prefer the chocolate Chanukah gelt on the table or a shiny red cracker.