Sisterhood Blog

10 Christmas Activities for Secular Jews

By Jessie Szalay

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Calling it “the most wonderful time of the year” may be a bit of a stretch, but the Christmas season certainly has more to offer Jews than Chinese food.

I don’t mean the old secular standbys of non-Jesus-y carols, egg nog, or It’s a Wonderful Life, either. In fact, the season’s non-stop carol soundtrack makes me want to dash through the snow all the way to my silent house. Ditto for Santa, the mad shopping rush, and even, to an extent, the tree (needles get everywhere and it’s a ton of work).

I grew up having fairly traditional Christmas celebrations with the non-Jewish relatives on my father’s side of the family. I thought they were fun as a child, but as a secular Jewish adult, I feel no obligation to continue any but my absolute favorite traditions. Having done them all, I feel confident in sending Santa right back to the North Pole… but I’ll keep the feelings of good cheer.

Secular Jews can enjoy a freedom more delicious than figgy pudding: embracing whatever elements of the season they choose and enjoying them in a non-religious way. Here are my top ten yuletide activities:

10) Looking at Lights

There’s something enchanting and life-affirming about delicate lights shining on a dark, wintery night. Check out the decorated houses in your neighborhood–lights make even cookie-cutter suburbs look magical. City light displays are equally impressive, plus they encourage us to stare at buildings that we often walk right by. I’ve noticed plenty of elaborate sconces, friezes, and column heads while admiring the holiday lights in my Washington, DC home.

Plus, you don’t even have to call them Christmas lights. Make like the British and refer to them as fairy lights. We all know fairies are way more magical than Santa, anyway.

9) Listening to Choral Music

As previously noted, most carols makes me feel like I have jingle bell rocks pounding in my head. But there are some sweet choral arrangements out there, and Christmas is the time when they go (kinda) mainstream. Listen to them on your own (when driving around looking at lights!), or check out a concert. Most cities have spectacular local choirs, and chances are they perform a reasonably priced holiday concert. Any time the masses are lining up to hear classical choral arrangements, that’s a cause for celebration.

Best of all? Many of the lyrics will be in Latin or German, so you don’t have to hear about messianic births and mangers and stuff, even though that is the subject matter. Even when sung in English, choral lyrics are usually hard to understand. So sit back and let the old-fashioned, formal beauty of the arrangement wash over you.

8) Shopping the Sales… for Yourself

The mall sucks at this time of year, but if you’re going to go — or if you’re just going to go online — you can find some awesome sales. And since Christmas isn’t your holiday, you don’t have to feel guilty about buying things for yourself. So while everyone else is running around getting people gifts they probably don’t need, you can buy exactly what you want. Of course, it’s fun to get into the spirit of giving, too, but without the obligation to get something for every single person you know, you can focus your energies as you see fit, perhaps on…

7) Giving Handmade Gifts

If you feel like giving during the season, use it as an excuse to get crafty or artsy. During the rest of the year, it can be hard to find time to let your creative side out. Here’s your opportunity to paint a painting, knit a scarf, write a poem… and when you’re doing it for someone else, chances are your motivation to finish will be higher.

6) Fancy Holiday Parties

Parties rock. Birthday, themed, holiday, housewarming… as long as they’re not filled with drunk frat boys, I like them all. But we live in a casual world, and most parties lack the glitz and glitter of yesteryear (or what “The Great Gatsby” suggests of yesteryear). The exception? Christmas parties.

Christmas parties have tinsel. They have shiny ornaments. They have glittery, twinkly lights. Best of all, many of them have guests wearing their best. Unless you’re invited to galas on a regular basis, most likely you don’t get to wear that velvety/lacey/embroidered dress with the gold brocade very often. Christmas parties are your chance to get glam — without paying hundreds of dollars to attend a New Year’s Eve ball.

5) Trying all the Holiday Beers

Though the season has its share of delicious cocktails, in recent years, Christmas beers are where it’s at. The United States is undergoing a microbrewery revolution and as a result, there are likely multiple local seasonal brews available for your drinking pleasure. Tasty surprises you might encounter while sipping include hints of fig, caramel, cinnamon, citrus, pine, nutmeg and chocolate. Yummy! Make it a real festive celebration and go on a pub crawl or see if your local beer haus has a Christmas Tasting event. Celebration ales, winter whites, Christmas stouts, yuletide lagers… try them all.

4) Going to Church on Christmas Eve

This is a controversial idea, I know, but it’s worth checking out Christmas Eve services because they are so damn pretty.

Do your research and find a liberal church (Episcopalian or Congregational denominations are good). Make sure to attend a service held a dark, echoey sanctuary where the only light will be from attendees holding delicate white candles. The effect is quiet, peaceful, and angelic. Listen to the Christmas story read in solemn tones and appreciate it for what it is: a myth (or just zone out if it makes you uncomfortable, and enjoy the atmosphere). Listen to beautiful music. If you really don’t want to hear about Jesus, go to a Catholic service held in Latin. I once went to Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican and though I didn’t understand a thing that was said, it was an incredible experience because of the beauty of the place and the reverent energy.

3) Going to the Ballet

As with choral music, this is the time of year when, thanks to The Nutcracker, ballet goes mainstream. Now, The Nutcracker is far from my favorite ballet. There are a lot of children in it, and, sorry kids, but your grand allegro jumps just can’t compare to those of an adult man with thigh muscles the size of your head. But if you have kids or non-ballet aficionados in your life, this is a great way to introduce them to ballet culture and call it a seasonal activity (and laugh maniacally at your own sneakiness).

Plus, it’s hard not to enjoy watching cute kids pirouette around the stage and audience members’ eyes light up when they hear the familiar music (which is beautiful by the way — much better than carols). And the story of The Nutcracker does have some pretty cool elements: kitchen tools turning into princes, fights with giant mice, a drag queen on stilts wearing a skirt that clown children live beneath, etc.

2) Mistletoe Makeouts

For us single folk, we can make out with strangers (or our partners, I guess) on any number of holidays. Or, you know, during the rest of the year. But doing it under the mistletoe is so much classier.

Chances are, you’ll be in a fairly well-lit place and the music will be festive and cheerful rather than booty-bumping dance music. Plus, you’ll be drunk on eggnog and peppermint Schnapps instead of vodka shots. If that doesn’t say romance, I don’t know what does.

1) A Paid Day Off for Family Time

Americans work too hard. We need all the paid holidays we can get. And let’s face it — a lot of our holidays have problematic elements. Columbus Day? Thanksgiving? Hooray for celebrating whitewashed history! Christmas doesn’t seem much worse than any of those. And if I don’t have to go to work, I’ll take it.

The difference between Christmas and many of our other holidays off is that it emphasizes family. Unless you hang out exclusively with non-Christmas celebrators (which does not necessarily mean non-Christians), chances are most people you know will be with their families. So why not go to yours? Enjoy their company. Go on a walk. Eat whatever you want, listen to whatever you want, decorate however you want. You’re Jewish, and this is not your holiday — but it can still be a day of celebrating life and love with those you care about.

Photo credit Thinkstock


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