Christmayear — the secret Jewish holiday

Did you know that Christmas and New Year’s are secretly a Jewish holiday?

Well, not really. But maybe we can start an urban legend. An Internet hoax. A new Dan Brown novel. Or something.

I was thinking about how this week between Christmas and New Year’s always feels a little unmoored and other-worldly. Schools are closed; workplaces are half-empty. When I used to be employed at newspapers, this was always a bad week to get your phone calls returned and a good week to organize your files. Yesterday I tried to borrow some books from our local public library and discovered it is closed until January, due to a combination of holidays and budget cuts.

Then it occurred to me… maybe Christmas and New Year’s are just one long eight-day holiday!

We have a bunch of these in the Jewish calendar. Passover lasts for seven days in Israel and eight days in the Diaspora. Sukkot lasts for seven days. Chanukah lasts for eight days. Orthodox Jews limit the kinds of work they do during chol ha’moed, the middle days of Sukkot and Passover. This final week of December feels similar to my vague, decades-old memories of Passover in Israel – schools were closed, some businesses were closed, families took vacations, everything slowed down a bit.

I guess Christmas at one point had 12 days of geese a-laying and lords a-leaping. But unfortunately for the goose and lord industries, no one here in the U.S. seems to celebrate 12 days of it.

So forget the 12 days or even Twelfth Night. What we’ve got is one eight-day-long holiday that begins with Christmas and ends with New Year’s.

So, happy Christmayear! Let’s formalize its rituals: Eating leftovers. Re-gifting fruitcake. Wondering whether to join a health club on Jan. 2nd. Waiting in vain for people to respond to business calls or emails.

And let’s bring Christmayear out of the closet. Eight days – clearly an unrecognized Jewish holiday.

Chag sameach!


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6 Responses to “Christmayear — the secret Jewish holiday”

  1. Jim Richardson Says:

    Yes, indeed, Christmas is 12 days. And the “Merry Christmases” that began BEFORE Christmas should really be now. And how I do remember being a reporter and being required to come up with an “evergreen” story for this week (translation: a story with no time value that can run on any day this week). And never being one to organize files, this was mostly a week of coffee runs.
    Back to the 12 days, for what it is worth, the Church (writ large) has a Holy Day for each of the 12 days. Today is Holy Innocents, the day it is said that King Herod murdered all of the two-year-old boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill off Jesus. There is no historical record that this actually happened, but it is a story in the middle of Christmas about human-bred evil. For a terrific commentary that transcends denominational and interfaith lines, CofE Bishop Alan Wilson of Oxford has a very sobering meditation today on “Thinking Anglicans” and it goes to why God doesn’t just fix everything with a wand. You can read it here:

  2. johnmangels Says:

    So, yes, as Jim says, some of us Christians try to celebrate the twelve days. And for liturgical churches, it is the official calendar. Though even in our family, the year I tried to have us celebrate the twelve days and give small gifts each day until Epiphany (which I really copied from a Jewish friend’s family’s way of celebrating Hannukah — I was so jealous) happened exactly once. So you are essentially correct. Even though I’m doing a series of seasonal readings which will not end until Epiphany this year (to mark the season for myself).

  3. Susie W Says:

    Hi, Ilana,

    You bring up a touchy subject. Every year, I find myself resenting the whole “holiday” season more and more. You seem to relish in the extended season; i’ll try to take a page from your book.

    As a kid I enjoyed Chanukah, but found it a rather weak sustitute for xmas, and was jealous of the trees, presents, snow (growing up in LA) and all the merriment. With kids of my own and a lapsed Catholic husband, we decorated, ate and gifted for both xmas and chanukah, which was enjoyable for a few years. In the last decade or so, however, i’ve come to really understand that Chanukah isnt a major holiday worthy of all the fuss, and the Hoo-rah around it really IS just a weak substitute for christmas afterall.

    So every year at this time, the distinction between Christians and Jews (celebrants and non-celebrants) becomes all the more distinct, and i still do believe tinged with a certain amount of queasy anti-semitism (oh, you really arent one of us, are you?). The old resentment resurfaces early december, and subsides around now. Am i just getting older and more cranky?

    In daily office chatter, people ask: “Are you ready for the holidays?” I’ve taken to answering, “I dont participate”, which is true other than chinese and a movie. i find that for some people, my answer is pretty off-putting, and unnecessarily so, so i wont use it next year; think i’ll just say “yes” knowing that “ready” for me just means selecting the movie from the listings.

    I have to admit though, the last weekend WAS really nice, lots of time to visit friends and family, lots of good food (actually not even time to get to the chinese restaurant) and a great version of sherlock holmes at the movies. (BTW, Robert Downey Jr, 1/4 jewish….)

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Hi Susie. You raise lots of great issues — enough for a half dozen blog posts.

      Way back when I was at the Sac Bee, I wrote a story for the feature section on how Jews dealt with the “December dilemma.” It was an eye opener to me how much angst is caused by Christmas — not the holiday itself, but its overarching cultural dominance for pretty much the whole month of December.

      I never felt this kind of angst myself for a weird reason — namely, I grew up celebrating Christmas. My family was Jewish but we had a Christmas tree, stockings, turkey, brand new bikes and kittens under the tree, the whole bit. I didn’t realize until I was probably ten that it was someone else’s religious holiday. It just seemed like another secular American celebration, alongside Thanksgiving or 4th of July. Basically: family + gifts + food.

      As an adult who reclaimed a strong Jewish identity, I stopped celebrating Christmas. Two things happened around the same time — my mother died (so my family stopped getting together for Christmas) and I started dating Sam (who would probably drink Drano before have a Christmas tree).

      I don’t really miss it — occasional twinges of nostalgia, but that’s more for my childhood than for Christmas itself.

      One result, I think, is that I’ve never experienced the “outsider” feeling that you and many other Jews describe around Christmas. It’s pretty easy for me to enjoy the hoopla, lights, and greetings without feeling either left out or culturally coerced.

      But I know it’s a big issue and a tough time of year for many people.

  4. Jim Richardson Says:

    Christmas is a tough time for many (including me). It’s not the commercialism that gets to me (that is easy to tune out), or the superficiality of much of it, but the proclamation that all should be merry. And the more I am in my current business, the more people I meet who are quite blue at Christmas and just try to get through it. Some churches even have “Blue Christmas” service for those who are feeling out of sorts with Christmas. I haven’t been to one, not sure I really want to sit around with depressed people.

  5. kaveh Says:

    Merry Christmayear and happy Chanukah Ilana! I liked the humor in this piece.

    We celebrate Christmas in our house, mainly because Susan was raised as a Christian, and to celebrate the family/food/gifts/holiday spirit that we and the kids enjoy.

    Since coming to America as an 18 y.o., celebrating Persian New Year (1st day of spring) has become less and less important for me–it now just involves a few calls and emails to family members and friends. A little sad, perhaps; when the dominant culture surrounding you does not celebrate something that you used to celebrate, it becomes easy to let it go and join the crowd; the social ‘matrix’ sustaining the old ways is no longer there.

    But enjoying some ritual, I’ve transferred the Holiday feeling of what Iranians (and Afghans) call Eid-e Norooz (literally, Holiday of New Day) celebration to what you aptly (for me) called Chrismayear Holiday. Yes, the weather is not as nice, there are no blossoms, and we are not going house to house for a week visiting family and friends, but Eid is Eid.

    So Eid Mobarak! Blessed Holidays!

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