New Kings Building

Becoming an outsider in December

“I gave up Christmas.”

One of our Arts students (who wants to remain anonymous) explains what it’s like to be surrounded by a festival she no longer celebrates, following her conversion to Judaism.

In Scotland, grocery shops get decorated in red right after Hallowe’en, and aisles are booming with Christmas cards, advent calendars and decorations.  And, as I walked down the aisles, I realised that everyone knows what Christmas is, yet the enthusiasm is practically absent when it comes to celebrating non-Christian holidays.  In a multicultural society, Christmas still has a massive symbolic significance.

Candles on a table, and a decorated fir tree in the background

I grew up in a secular agnostic Christian family, but religion was important to me – in many ways it was my haven.  It was where I found peace when the world seemed overwhelming.  When I started practicing Liberal Judaism I had to reflect on the importance of Christmas and I still do.  Last year, my flatmate and I had a Christmas tree in our living room, we had advent calendars, and we talked about how our countries celebrate.

It's in many ways strange to walk around in December and see all the Christmas decorations.  People are chatting about all the things they need to get sorted before going on a break.  Students excitedly speak about going home for Christmas.  And yet, I’m becoming an outsider during the month because I associate these feelings and thoughts with Jewish holidays.  The Jewish calendar follows the lunar cycle rather than the sun, so Chanukah falls between the 12th-20th December this year.  And, while it’s peculiar, I constantly admire how, in the midst of stress, their eyes light up when they converse.  Sometimes, the beauty is when you get to combine your faith and family customs.

Last year Christmas and Chanukah fell around the same time.  I felt awkward at Christmas, because it didn’t feel like my holiday per se.  Rather, I was constantly thinking about baking challah, about putting on my tallit and lighting the first candle in the menorah, and about feeling home.  Yet, the holiday is not just what we celebrate.  It is with whom we celebrate.  It is the atmosphere.  The spark in our eyes when being in a comfortable situation.  It’s what it means to us – as an individual and as a group.  And the moment I recited my prayers over the menorah, I felt at home.

This year, my family will also do something for Christmas, but they will also have latkes and challah prepared for me when I fly in after my exams, because the holiday spirit is love, understanding and appreciation.

My wish would be that we all know about other faiths, that we understand the significance of Eid to Muslims, that we appreciate the observance of Baisakhi for Sikhs, that we admire the Hindu holiday Diwali, and that we celebrate humanity and diversity together.  So, if you see a Jew from the 13th-20th December, please wish us a Happy Chanukah.  It’s greetings like that which are so important to a multi-cultural society.  I wish you all a peaceful December and a well-deserved break after exams.