A Grain Of Saul: I Used To Look Down On Christmas, But This Year Taught Me What It Is All About

As a Jew, Christmas used to make me feel like a minority.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

It's not that I hated Christmas, it's just that I never really liked it. 

Growing up in a Jewish household, most Christmas seasons were spent explaining to my non-Jewish friends that Hanukkah wasn't that important of a holiday. Then, when Christmas Day actually rolled around, my family would spend our afternoon stereotypically: at the best Chinese restaurant in town followed by a day at the movies.

While Christmas was a day off I gleefully took, it was also one of the few times every year I felt disconnected from my country. It was one of the few times I actually felt like a minority. 

In many ways, I really looked down on Christmas; it felt commercialized, hollow, and seemed to promote a materialistic lifestyle that I've always felt was a negative characteristic of American society. Commercials for Christmas would make me laugh out loud at their absurdity: BMWs wrapped in ribbons, children getting gifts that cost $500, scantily clad women in Santa outfits celebrating the birth of Christ.

And in recent years, the so-called "war on Christmas" made me even more annoyed. No offense to Americans who celebrate Christmas, but your holiday was never under attack. When a religion is a supermajority which has a one day holiday that lasts about a month and a half with commercials, lights, celebrations, and Christmas-themed everything in every corner of the country, it's hard to imagine that its adherents are also the victims of some oppressive war on their traditions. 

Even now, millions of Americans are being told they "can say Christmas again," as if they weren't previously allowed, as if I wasn't wished a merry Christmas a few hundred times every winter.

But this year, I celebrated Christmas for real. 



Relaxing with a dog and some presents.
Relaxing with a dog and some presents. Photo: Isaac Saul

Not just by buying a Christian significant other a gift, which I'd done before, but by participating in the holiday from start to finish. I had a whole family to shop for, Christmas meals to eat, Christmas movies to watch, Christmas stories to read, Christmas trees to buy, Christmas stockings to open, and even that magical feeling of waking up Christmas morning and getting to experience the culmination of all that preparation and forethought. 

Before this year, Santa Claus was just a fat guy in a red suit dishing out PlayStations. This time, though, I got to learn about a different Christmas story, the real Christmas story: St. Nicholas the giver, teaching children lessons about gratitude and self-respect and the gift of giving. I got to read, for the first time ever, the actual story of The Grinch, and the happy ending that I never knew existed (I had always thought The Grinch succeeded in ruining Christmas). 

I also recognized so many elements of this joyous, wholesome holiday from my own Jewish upbringing:

Breaking bread with a big family, and the way the best stories always come out over a plate of food. The slow migration to the couch and the floor and the fireplace and the TV after a meal that is far too big. Baking desserts like cookies and pie and eating the raw cookie dough, the teamwork of cooking in and cleaning a kitchen, the mini-feuds and alliances that form with a family over a long weekend together.

Photo: Isaac Saul
Photo: Isaac Saul

Even the part of Christmas that always put a sour taste in my mouth, the gift-giving, had an entirely new feel to it. Now I understood the challenge and fun of thinking of gifts not just for one person, but for a family of people. You have to meditate on who they are and what they like and what they'd enjoy. Gag gifts have to hit that perfect funny bone, and gifts for a girlfriend's mom — though the most terrifying — can also be the most rewarding.

The whole holiday also reminded me how similar values and traditions are for so many Americans, regardless of who you pray to, or whether you pray at all. I had actually celebrated Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year — in Egypt once, with practicing Muslims. I remember their fascination and surprise at the similarities in prayers, customs and songs that we performed throughout the night. 

Throughout my Christmas this year, I felt many of those same feelings: familiarity and comfort even as I learned and experienced new things. This year taught me that Christmas was more than a month of annoying commercials, that — for so many people — it's a holiday about giving, family and joy.

It taught me that this other holiday, this different religion, didn't separate me from the people who celebrate it, it drew me closer to them. One might even say my heart grew a few sizes bigger. 

You can follow Isaac Saul on Twitter @Ike_Saul.

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