“Keep Christ in Christmas” is a familiar saying this time of the year. But you don’t expect to hear it from the local rabbi.
For several years I was involved in our town’s Police Chaplaincy. One year, at our December meeting, the Methodist pastor noticed that the napkins had a picture of Santa Claus on them. He slid one across the table to the rabbi from the local synagogue.
“Hey Steve,” he asked, “what do Jews think about Santa Claus?”
“Nothing,” the rabbi responded as he picked up the napkin. “Santa is a Christmas character.”
“But he’s a secular figure,” countered the Methodist. “Don’t you even let the kids get presents from Santa so they won’t feel left out?”
“No,” he responded. “We don’t worry about that. Actually, I think Christians ought to keep Christ in Christmas.”
Until this point, my interest in the conversation had been minimal, but when a rabbi tells me to keep Christ in Christmas, he has my full attention.
“Did I hear you right, Steve?” I asked him.
“Absolutely,” he said. “As Jews, we don’t secularize our holidays. It amazes me when Christians water down their message with things that have nothing to do with their faith.
It amazes me when Christians water down their message with things that have nothing to do with their faith.
“In fact, I’ve actually delivered a ‘keep Christ in Christmas’ message to my congregation as a lesson about not diluting our faith with non-Jewish images and celebrations.”
As the conversation went on, my attitude shifted from curiosity to gratitude as my friend, the rabbi, taught me the following lessons about Christmas – and about being Christian:
1. They’re coming to church for the Jesus story
“When you come to a synagogue during any of our holiday seasons, you will never be confused about which symbols are religious and which ones are secular. I assume that if people are coming to a synagogue they are coming to see Jewish symbols and receive Jewish teaching, and that’s all I give them. Holiness means ‘set apart’. When we add non-religious symbols to the picture, we make it less than holy.”
People can, and do, go to a lot of places to get Christmas cheer. When they choose to come to a church during the Christmas season it’s not because they want to see more of what they can get elsewhere. They’re coming to church because they want to hear about Jesus.
I don’t see any need to be an anti-Santa zealot. But let’s not let this once-a-year opportunity pass us by. And don’t water it down.
Give them what the came for.
Give them Jesus.
2. Believe what you believe, but don’t be a jerk about it
“What do you do when someone wishes you Merry Christmas?” asked my Methodist colleague.
“I wish them a Merry Christmas back,” responded the rabbi. “We’re allowed to say the words, you know,” he smiled. “What would you say if someone wished you ‘Happy Hanukkah’?”
“I say Happy Hanukkah back,” the Methodist answered.
“There you go.”
3. Why blend in when we can be set apart?
“So, being around the Christmas images doesn’t make you uncomfortable?” I wondered out loud.
“No,” he replied. “The vast majority of our society claims to be Christian. If you lived in Israel, you’d expect Jewish celebrations to be predominant, right?”
“Which brings me back to my original question,” my Methodist friend responded. “What about your kids? Don’t they feel left out when almost all the other kids are celebrating Christmas?”
Separation from the culture isn’t something to be embarrassed about. It’s who we are.
“No,” responded the rabbi. “What some people call left out, we call set apart. Being different is central to what it means to be Jewish. It always has been. So that’s what we teach our kids. That kind of separation from the culture isn’t something to be embarrassed about. It’s who we are.”
After that, the conversation ended with thanks and farewells – and a few Merry Christmases and Happy Hanukkahs, of course.
I went home pondering these things in my heart.
And I’ve never looked at Christmas the same way since.