I just watched “The Late Late Show” host James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” Christmas special. Special guest Mariah Carey sang the pop song, “All I Want for Christmas,” with other celebrity guests singing along in a montage. It was sweet.
I read the online comments after, descending into the world of American trolls, of uneducated misinformation where rules, decorum, social niceties, and — for lack of a better term — love, do not reign. One man wrote, “I am Muslim, and I still love this song!” This comment provoked an enormous attack, a vitriolic onslaught of bigoted comments about terrorists, benevolent defenses on behalf of all Christians, and a lot of people upset. “Why did you have to mention you were Muslim at all?” one commenter wrote. “It’s just a Christmas carol.”
This is supposed to be an essay about Chanukah, which happens to fall on Christmas Eve this year, and ends eight days later, just after New Year’s. When I think of Chanukah, I think of latkes and fried food and chocolate and family. I think of complicated stories about survival and triumph, about a tiny army defeating its giant enemy, about light compounding and miracles generating. I think of lining up in Jerusalem for freshly fried sufganiyot, the traditional jelly doughnut celebrating the miracle of oil that was only enough for one night, but lasted eight. I remember inviting neighbors over to our living room to light candles, sing songs, and play dreidl. But mostly, if I think about Chanukah, I think about how we’ve embellished a little-known Jewish holiday to cope with not being Christian at Christmas in a Christian nation.
The things I took for granted growing up, like Santa at the mall, Christmas lights in every storefront, songs about Jesus on the radio — these things were just part of the fabric of my American life. Chanukah fell around Christmas, and we did our best to make it special and bright, but even in its eight days of glory, it was never enough to magically transform us into regular old Christian Americans. (And yes, I know, all it takes is taking Jesus into my heart.)
We ate Chinese food on Christmas, not ham, especially since ham isn’t kosher. We went to the movies with other Jewish friends on Christmas Eve. My father’s former boss used to invite us to her house in Maryland. She had the most enormous indoor Christmas tree I have ever seen, and our job was to decorate it. All five of my very Jewish family members were invited, as if Christmas elves, to trim her tree for her.
Our Christian neighbors invited us for Christmas morning, after they had opened presents, and sometimes before Christmas, to sing Nat King Cole songs. We attended a Christmas caroling party every year at the Wallaces’, and on Christmas day, we volunteered at a nursing home. I still remember the old man who told me, when I revealed that I was Jewish and that’s why I wasn’t at home celebrating Christmas but there, instead, volunteering my time with him, that I was “going straight to hell.”
And then I lived in Jerusalem, where Jewish holidays were celebrated as the norm. For example, at Sukkot, every single storefront in Israel builds a small outdoor hut for dining, reminiscent of the impermanence of Moses and the Israelites’ nomadic wandering dwellings. Lights are sold in the street, pop-up stores emerge with decorations, and everyone erects this symbolic decorated realm in their home. Only then did I realize that the little details of American life, particularly this time of year, are really based on Christianity. Despite its diverse citizenry, America is an overtly Christian nation.
This sounds obvious, but for me it wasn’t. The neutrality of capitalism, the melting pot, my Quaker school upbringing, my Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian friends — despite the diversity of my own life, at the end of the day it was surprising for me to process that it was praise for Jesus on the radio, praise for Jesus in stores, and praise for Jesus in the showering of gifts. It wasn’t neutral at all.
Of course, modern American secular culture isn’t church. I get that. And music and eggnog and wrapped gifts and Christmas trees and bright blinking lights are fun. Who doesn’t like those things? But our Sabbath Sunday, our national days off for Christmas, Easter, and beyond — these are simply holidays I don’t celebrate. When I want a day off for my holidays, I have to single myself out and ask. And to even say this, to point this out, I become a Jewish Grinch, stealing Christmas, right?
The Muslim commenter on the James Corden video was pointing to an obvious and simple truth: He was Muslim and not Christian. Mariah Carey’s Christmas song is about Christmas, and for him, like me, to love that song is just interesting when you are raised with a different set of religious rules, religious beliefs, and religious followings. And I do love that song, and Mariah Carey, in all her glory.
The commenters wanted this man to swallow the fact of his difference, to swallow the discomfort of singing Christmas songs, no matter how secular they have become. He was simply pointing to the Christianity embedded in popular American culture, and to the odd intersection for non-Christian or nonreligious Americans, where to be American means you also herald God and Jesus and Christianity.
This time of year, in little pokes, by deciding not to assimilate, buy a tree and a red sweater, by deciding to continue with my own inherited faith, traditions, and history, I am reminded that I am American, but at the cost, potentially, of stripping myself of pieces of my identity, or otherwise remaining alienated from the collective.
Still, on this Island, I find love in the Christmas parties with cider overflowing and bonfires crackling in the background. Christmas lights are a joyous contrast to an otherwise desolate winter night, and Christmas cookies, Christmas flowers, Christmas everything punctuate the darkness of the season with pure joy. I actually love Christian culture, even though it is not my own.
And I find love at synagogue at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center and in the small but bright Jewish community that gathers in song, and with food, parties, and more to celebrate, like everyone else at the dark winter solstice, the miracle of light, the miracle of Chanukah. It is in these darkest hours that we learn the power of love, and yes, I said that. It is here where the sun sets at 4 and the hot drinks pour by 6, that friendship, care, camaraderie, and community matter most, no matter how deeply you believe in the Second Coming, or whether you are waiting, impatiently, for your Messiah to come.
Merissa Nathan Gerson’s writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Playboy magazine, Elle.com, the New York Observer, Refinery29, and beyond. She holds a Master’s degree in Jewish Studies from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. She teaches workshops nationwide on modern Judaism, sexuality, spirituality, and the inheritance of trauma.