It won’t be long before everyone starts asking me if I am ready for Christmas. The question usually comes up as soon as the last jack-o’-lanterns are removed from the porch. For a Jew—and probably for a Moslem—it’s a paralyzing question. Living in this province for more than three decades I am still stumped by the question. Usually, my brain experiences a wee explosion when this happens.
What are my options? I could say
a) Are you kidding? Not even close.
d) I don’t do Christmas, I’m Jewish.
I’ve probably answered c most of the time. It’s just easier to say no — which everyone expects — than to make people uncomfortable with the startling revelation that you belong to a religion that doesn’t mark the 25th of December as the First Coming. That means no decorated trees in the house; no purchasing or exchange of gifts; no icicle lights around the eaves; no cherry, fruit, or plum cakes; no fat men in red suits; no memories whatsoever of gathering ‘round the hearth on Christmas morning, opening up presents and being surprised or disappointed by what was under the wrapping paper. I know, I know, for many the absence of the aforementioned trappings of Christmas is just too hideous to contemplate.
The other day I was talking to someone Who Should Know Better. She said, well, what a time for you to be traveling/dealing with this and that/attending so many meetings, what with Christmas coming. I was gobsmacked. What does ‘Christmas coming’ have to do with me, I silently fumed. But I didn’t say anything. It’s exhausting having to switch gears with so many well-meaning people who just don’t naturally hold the view that the world is divided between Christians and many many others.
Not so long ago, in a Secret Santa ritual played for up to $10 at a university office, I unwrapped my surprise present to find a plastic crèche. Uh, I noted aloud, this won’t do me any good—I’m Jewish, and so a tableau of the Baby Jesus just doesn’t go with my life. Oh, someone said in all seriousness, it’ll make a great centrepiece for your table, though.
Where does one start?
Years ago, after I had received a lot of attention in the media for some work I had done for the opening of the abortion clinic in St. John’s I received a number of frightening death threats and a lot of hideous, unwanted mail. It was a scary time – mercifully before social media– but with some amusement I recall the evening I received a phone call from some older-sounding gentleman who asked me straightaway how I could be supporting the clinic “as a Christian.” Uh, I’m not a Christian, I replied. Stunned silence. He could not at all comprehend what I could possibly have meant by that. The abyss of no comprehension opened between us.
I like to think times have changed since that period, not so long ago, and that most people are enlightened about the diverse, wider world we all share. Yes, probably most Newfoundlanders in 2016 know that not everyone is a Christian. But a glance at the rise of the empowered alt-right in the US following the presidential election, and the highly disturbing displays of anti-Semitism across the world, including right here in Canada last week, leave me disturbed and not a little anxious. We can debate the degree to which that outrageous orange bomb of a presidential-elect is responsible for these acts, but these displays of hatred speak to a wider response, one T**** tapped, sure, but nonetheless exist. That slice of the population has no qualms about repeating the sins of the past—not as long as it will make their country “great again.”
But what about here in Canada? Evidence exists to suggest we are not that much different—or better. Honestly, if higher education were good for anything surely it must be to tolerate diversity, and not to tolerate expressions or acts of hatred against any ethnic or religious group.
Meanwhile, in the next few weeks if anyone wishes to ask me if I am ready for Christmas, be prepared for a firm no, never, not ever.