Jewish Carols

I actually wrote this post two years ago but haven’t been brave enough to publish it until now.

It’s about a secret love of mine: Christmas carols. Technically, as  a (nonobservant) Jew, I know I shouldn’t enjoy them or sing them, a knowledge that was imparted on me by my mom who, when I was learning Silent Night in third grade, acted as if she was personally experiencing the Inquisition when it gets to the part about yon Virgin and Child. I was also afraid to say the word ‘Jesus’ until I was in high school.  I was always embarrassed to sing them at home and when I did, it was always in the shower.

From youth onward, singing Christmas carols became a stigma for me and an involuntary jolt of shame and fear came upon me every time we had to sing a song in class that had anything to do with Jesus or Holy Nights or Yon Virgins.  I would panic and try to swallow the words as much as I could while burning in shame that I couldn’t just sing them like my classmates could.

Theoretically, this is good.  Jewish (or Muslim or Bahai or areligious)  kids shouldn’t be singing Christmas carols about a God they’re not supposed to believe in.   And, schools need to recognize this and not have any religious content in their holiday programs (many of which I’ve had to suffer through both as a clarinet player all through high school and middle school and a member of our school chorus.)  Not balanced content (i.e. one Hanukkah song, one Christmas song, etc.)  Just no religious content at all. And don’t label it as the War on Christmas. Just label it as a separation of church and state.

At the same time, Jewish parents shouldn’t overreact and stigmatize kids against everything related to Christmas, which is more and more becoming a secular holiday in the United States.  Particularly when one of the kid’s other parents might be Christian.  Granted, my dad is a pretty stoic Christian.   He never took me to Russian Orthodox Christmas services (probably out of concern for my sanity, seeing as to how the whole service is held standing up). He never explained Easter, or much any Russian religious to me in the same way that my mom explained Judaism. But he did take me to a monastery when we were in Russia, which was awesome and one of the experiences I remember most about that trip. There, my aunt asked me to drink some water that had been blessed by the priests of the monastery, which I shied away from very uncomfortably.  But why?  Why couldn’t I have been raised in dichotomy?  I’m not saying we should have celebrated Chrismukkah, because that’s  just lame.

But,  I’m  sad about the fact that I don’t know of any Orthodox Christian tradtitions to pass on (not even egg dyeing.  I got nothin’).  Because it is still part of my identity. And while I don’t identify with the sense of joy and celebration that are tied into Christmas carols because I’m not Christian, I am  still going to be rocking out to the following song, which has three of my favorites (Europeans, tuxedos, and cathedrals). Just in secret, still.  Because the fear never leaves you.








8 thoughts on “Jewish Carols

  1. Actually, a lot of Muslims I know celebrate a pretty Westerb Christmas, just avoiding the whole “Jesus is a third of thee Trinity and the Trinity is God” part. They’re more “A prophet is born of a virgin!”

    I don’t really know any carols in English because my church’s services are entirely in Amharic. I felt pretty left out too as a little lassie.

  2. “Why couldn’t I have been raised in dichotomy?”  I think you need to thank your parents for not buying into that mishugas.  There is no such thing as “dual religious traditions”.  It drives me nuts to see how some parents willfully create confused children.  I want to tell them to choose one religion and stick to it….like your parents did.  As for Christmas carols….most of the better ones in America were written by our tribesmen, so there!  And since we live in a Christian country there is nothing wrong with liking and enjoying the traditions of the surrounding majority from the sidelines.  I love Christmas for the mere fact that everyone from store clerks to co-workers becomes just a bit nicer for a little while….and I love the decorations (can’t help it, I grew up with them).

  3. Ugh, sorry, but I want to smack Nonna. I grew up with a Jewish mother & a non-Jewish secularly Christian father. We celebrated Christmas AND Chanukah, but I was raised Jewish. I understood that Christmas was daddy’s holiday. Why should he have to give up the traditions that made him so happy? Why couldn’t he share that with his child? I did not grow up “confused” – I work for a Jewish organization, as I have now for 10 years, & identify very much as a Jew. But today, with my father dead for nearly 17 years, I still think of it fondly with connections to my father.I’m thankful for those memories & for being raised in a way that showed me multiple traditions. Nonna can keep her close-minded mishigas. No, thanks.

    1. Expressing a desire for violent reaction vs. constructing an articulate argument… you think you make your parents proud, Sweetheart (completely regardless of how you were raised)?   Try to remember that tonight is Hanukah, may it bring some light to all.

  4. Let’s keep it respectful around here. But I did want to say that I also don’t think raising kids to understand two religions is wrong or crazy, as long as they understand, like S and I do, that they are Jewish. Last night I watched the menorah being lit in Edinburgh. The day before I lit a candle for my deceased Russian grandmother in St. Pauls in London and am only a more expansive, three dimensional person because I am privy to both experiences.

  5. Sorry to be commenting so many years after the fact, but I found out about your blog a few days ago and have been lurking steadily through the archives ever since. I’m American of half Belarusian (Catholic) descent and half Israeli Jewish (of various types) descent, and I love this post so much that I was compelled to stop lurking. I also love Christmas carols, and my mother reacted the same way. (She also reacted that way when I was three and adored Wagner operas because my dad was playing them, LOL. What can I say–I wanted to be a Valkyrie!) It’s compounded by the fact that my Belarusian side is all in the US and they’re the ones I grew up with, and they happen to be much more open-minded and accepting of my immediate family than my Israeli side. I see nothing wrong with growing up with info from both sides in a non-stigmatizing way, and wish that had been the case for me, because while I’m most definitely Jewish and nothing would change that, I’m also Belarusian by heritage–I like to think of myself as “Jewish-plus.” Incidentally, my husband, who is Kazakh from Kazakhstan (and Muslim), is slightly taken aback when I belt out Christmas carols about the Virgin in Latin, but he doesn’t judge. Anyway, thanks for writing such a wonderful blog, and sharing your thoughts on this and other things!

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