The Jewish Christmas is...Shabbat.
Forget Hanukkah. Christmas shares much with the day of rest.
In 1992, Bil Keane published the following cartoon in Family Circus.
I like Keane’s question, and I think there’s a good answer: Jews do sing carols, but they’re not about Hanukkah. This is because the true Jewish parallel to Christmas isn’t Hanukkah—it’s Shabbat.
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Christmas and Shabbat do not share the same backstory or purpose, but the experience of the days are remarkably similar, at least in American popular culture. Both are cozy days, lazy days. Both are days when families spend time together, frequently around big meals. Both are days—to get back to Family Circus—whose awesomeness is backed by a large collection of historic songs that are frequently sung in groups. Both involve special candles, as I described in my last post. Oh—and both are also days to attend religious services, if you want to. When I present this Christmas/Shabbat connection to people who have observed both, they generally agree that the two days have very similar vibes.
If the correct Jewish analog for Christmas is indeed Shabbat, then something weird happens, which is that Christmas starts looking a little…small? Sure, the elegance and beauty of Christmas will always beat out silly little slightly-embarrassing Hanukkah, as perfectly articulated by Jon Stewart. There’s nothing quite like Christmas. But if you compare Christmas to Shabbat—well, isn’t it just a little sad that Christmas comes but once as a year when Jews get to do Shabbat every week? How did the most wonderful time of the year end up coming so rarely, when Shabbat, a day that is “honored above all days,” comes so often?
The answer, I think, lies in the single most identifiable feature of both Shabbat and Christmas, which is that each is understood to be a day of rest. This is self-policing for Shabbat and federally mandated for Christmas, but the result is the same: most observant Jewish communities don’t work on Shabbat and the most Americans don’t work on Christmas. It is the fact that these days of rest are respected by the community/nation that makes all the other elements of the day possible: the coziness, the family, the food, the well-attended communal prayers, even some of the songs.
Hold up, you say. If you’re talking about days of rest, why are you talking about Christmas? Why aren’t you talking about the Sabbath, which most Christians observe on Sundays? Why do you have to go all the way to Christmas when the Sabbath is right there?
Well, it’s because Sunday isn’t a day of rest in America, at least not in the sense that Christmas and Shabbat are days of rest. Sure, many Americans attend church on Sundays, and some employees get overtime for working on the weekend, but the norm that one shouldn’t work on Sundays is very weak. While some Americans really do stay home on Sundays after church and have quiet family time, the idea that this is a day to spend cozily at home with family and friends has not been preserved on a national level.
This isn’t for lack of trying. As, Alexis McCrossen has documented, many Americans in the 19th century really did want commerce to shut down on Sundays; many cities passed laws shutting down their street cars, for example. Some Americans didn’t even like bicycles, which made it too easy for young people to travel to places that weren’t the local church. But the American Sabbath died in the courts, which threw out most of the regulations that would have truly slowed down the economy on Sundays. Today’s blue laws are just an idiosyncratic remnant of a much larger vision. By the 1930s the Sunday “day of rest” had really turned into a day of recreational activities. It’s a day to get out of the house, not a day to stay in.
Just as the Sabbath was faltering, Christmas began to rise. In 1870, Congress made December 25 a federal holiday, together with Thanksgiving, New Year’s, and Independence Day. Whereas the Sabbath was a cultural norm that lost its most important legal battles, Christmas culture grew around the idea—set at the highest levels of government—that this day was supposed to be exceptional. Today, there are many American businesses that only close on Christmas and New Year’s Day.
What’s the moral of the story? Well, this is an instance where being a minority may have actually helped. Jews never expected Shabbat to be turned into legislation; once they gained the ability to decline work on Saturdays (not always a given), everything else was set on the level of communal norms. Christians, as the majority culture, did not have that luxury: debates about the Sabbath were always going to take place on a national level, and the “day of rest” would either be legislated or it would be nothing at all. Sundays never got an enforcement mechanism. Christmas did.
There is more to say on this subject: about the complicated history of Christmas, about the Sabbath, and what it means to “rest” in an industrialized country that has internet. I’ll admit that this is an area where I’m running up against the limits of my knowledge, so this is really just a draft of an idea that deserves to get more polish.
For now—I just want to end by say how grateful I am to all of you who have read these posts over the last few months. I consistently get more engagement on Jello Menorah than almost anything else I publish, and that has encouraged me to treat this as a serious place to play out new ideas.
Thank you for all of your support—and if you haven’t already, please subscribe. I’ll have lots more for you in 2023.
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