Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Christmas Spirit

The holidays are officially here!

Actually, to be honest, the holidays have been here in London for several weeks, as AT mentioned in her blog recently.  "Without Thanksgiving," she notes, "there is no traditional date after which Christmas officially begins."  And so Christmas decorations have been popping up on the high street since Halloween.  Oxford Street and Regent Street strung up festive lights in early November.  Pre-Christmas sales have already peaked and waned.

Christmas lights in London, 2013

I have to admit that I love the Christmas season and that I fully take advantage of the Christmas spirit.  What's that, you say?  A Jew celebrating the Christmas spirit?  Damn straight.

This might win me some anti-fans, but I don't think you need to believe in the birth of Jesus Christ to participate in the Christmas spirit.  I think the Christmas spirit is much less about a miracle happening (or not happening, depending on what you profess) and more about sharing joy and mirth and goodwill in literally dark days.  I think the Christmas spirit has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with faith - faith in our families, faith in our friends, and faith in humanity.

I went to a wonderful Hanukkah party today, hosted by a friend's friend's family in Hampstead.  Everyone was so warm and welcoming - they even invited me to their Seder in the spring - and it was just so lovely to share the holiday.  It felt like a homecoming of sorts, really; let me try to explain why with a little bit of personal history.

I went to preschool at the synagogue my family attended and was a regular - though reluctant - student at Hebrew school from the age of six through to thirteen.  I stopped going to Hebrew school after I was Bat Mitzvahed and only went to synagogue on High Holy Days.  However, I was president of my Episcopalian high school's small but active Jewish Awareness Club and I maintained a proud ownership of the religious and cultural heritage that comes with being Jewish.

For the first two years of university, this didn't change much - though, given that Jews are hardly a minority at Columbia and that practically everyone is an honorary Jew in Manhattan, I didn't really have to think about being Jewish while there.  I went home for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah or, if I couldn't take the time off from my studies, I'd go to JTS for services.  Except for junior year.

I missed High Holy Day services in my junior year of university and, much to my great surprise, felt incredibly guilty about not having gone.  I thought that, maybe, if I found a synagogue and went to a Friday night service, my guilt would be assuaged.  A family friend recommended a synagogue to me that was famous for its active 20s-30s group, and on a chilly Friday evening in October I headed down to 88th Street.  I really thought that going to one service would make me feel better - but instead I found myself moved to tears by the service and by the feeling of community that I found there.  I was hooked.

I went to the Friday evening service at that synagogue regularly throughout the rest of the semester - and even briefly dated a boy I met there - and, upon my return from my semester abroad in Paris, joined as a member for my senior year.

Unfortunately, I lapsed again when I left Columbia and didn't set foot inside a synagogue for two years.  (Oops.)

For some reason, though, when I moved to London I decided I wanted to find a synagogue.  After doing some serious research online - thanks, Google - I settled on a Liberal temple between work and home that, like my New York synagogue, has a vibrant 20s-30s community.  It's great: they organize Torah on Tap nights where we gather at a pub and study texts over beers, host holiday events (for instance, Hookah in the Sukkah), and hold a slightly more alternative service bimonthly on Friday evenings.  Also, they gave me tickets to Hight Holy Day services for free!  I have to admit though that I haven't been going to the synagogue as regularly as I'd like to.  Things keep coming up - but I think I need to make it more of a priority.

But when I do go, and when I am lucky enough to be part of celebrations like today's Hanukkah party, I am reminded how important my faith is to me.  I am reminded that faith fosters community - hence the homecoming comment.  And, to bring this post full circle, I am reminded that faith encourages the sharing of - dare I say it in this context? - the Christmas spirit.

And so, on this, the fifth night of Hanukkah and twenty days away from Christmas, I wish you this:

I wish that you are all, no matter what you believe or what religion you claim or where you are in your spiritual journeys, filled with the Christmas spirit.


  1. Loved this post. We celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah, despite being grouchy old atheists, and I think ou're right - it's about the spirit!

    Second, "Hookah in the Sukkah" sounds hilarious and awesome.

    Third, what year were you at CU? I was '06!

  2. Thanks, Karen!

    I was '08 at Columbia - we overlapped!


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