What a Rabbi Taught Me About Keeping Christ In Christmas

Star of David in tinsel“Keep Christ in Christmas is a familiar saying this time of the year. But you don’t expect to hear it from the local rabbi.

For several years I was involved in our town’s Police Chaplaincy. One year, at our December meeting, the Methodist pastor noticed that the napkins had a picture of Santa Claus on them. He slid one across the table to the rabbi from the local synagogue.

“Hey Steve,” he asked, “what do Jews think about Santa Claus?”

“Nothing,” the rabbi responded as he picked up the napkin. “Santa is a Christmas character.”

“But he’s a secular figure,” countered the Methodist. “Don’t you even let the kids get presents from Santa so they won’t feel left out?”

“No,” he responded. “We don’t worry about that. In fact I think you Christians ought to keep Christ in Christmas.”

Until this point, my interest in the conversation had been minimal, but when a rabbi tells me to keep Christ in Christmas, he has my full attention.

“Did I hear you right, Steve?” I asked him.

“Absolutely,” he said. “As Jews, we don’t secularize our holidays. It amazes me when Christians water down their message with things that have nothing to do with their faith. I actually deliver a ‘keep Christ in Christmas’ message every couple of years to my congregation as a lesson about not diluting our faith with non-Jewish images and celebrations.”

As the conversation went on, my attitude shifted from amazement to admiration as my friend, the rabbi, unintentionally taught me the following lessons about Christmas – and about being Christian:


1. They’re coming to church for the Jesus story

“When you come to a synagogue during any of our holiday seasons, you will never be confused about which symbols are religious and which ones are secular. I assume that if people are coming to a synagogue they are coming to see Jewish symbols and receive Jewish teaching, and that’s all I give them. Holiness means ‘set apart’. When we add non-religious symbols to the picture, we make it less than holy.”

If people are coming to your church during the Christmas season it’s not because they want to see a great show – especially if you pastor a Small Church. They can see that in lots of places. They’re coming to church because they want to hear about Jesus. 

Don’t let this once-a-year opportunity pass. And don’t water it down. Give them Jesus.


2. Some casualties in the War on Christmas may be self-inflicted

“Steve, let me be very blunt here,” I said. “I recently drove past the local shopping mall where the Christmas trees are now called Holiday trees. The person in the car with me made a distasteful comment that I’m sure you’ve heard before…”

“Let me guess,” the rabbi interrupted. “We could call them Christmas trees if it weren’t for the Jews making a fuss about it, right?”

I was embarrassed to admit he was right. “I didn’t agree with my friend’s assessment and I told him so,” I interjected. “But that’s what I hear. And obviously that’s what you hear too. How do you respond to that?”

“First of all,” Steve responded, “I agree that calling them Holiday trees is absurd. When I see an evergreen decorated with lights, tinsel and bulbs, it’s obvious that the Holiday they’re celebrating is Christmas, not Hanukkah. Calling them Holiday trees changes nothing and insults both Christians and Jews.

As to the second part about Jews stopping people from celebrating Christmas, I don’t know of a practicing, religious Jew who has problem with Christmas being Christmas. In my experience it’s been secular Jews and nominal Christians making a fuss about it.”


3. Believe what you believe, but don’t be a jerk about it

“What do you do when someone wishes you Merry Christmas?” asked my Methodist colleague.

“I wish them a Merry Christmas back,” responded the rabbi. “We’re allowed to say the words, you know,” he smiled. “What would you say if someone wished you ‘Happy Hanukkah’?”

“I say Happy Hanukkah back,” the Methodist answered.


4. Why blend in when we can be set apart?

“So, being around the Christmas images doesn’t make you uncomfortable?” I wondered out loud.

“No,” he replied. “Over 80% of our society claims to be Christian. If you lived in Israel, you’d expect Jewish celebrations to be predominant, right?”

“Which brings me back to my original question,” my Methodist friend responded. “What about your kids? Don’t they feel left out when almost all the other kids are celebrating Christmas?”

“No,” responded the rabbi. “What some people call left out, we call set apart. Being different is central to what it means to be Jewish. It always has been. So that’s what we teach our kids. That kind of separation from the culture isn’t something to be embarrassed about, it’s what makes us who we are.”

After that, the conversation ended with thanks and farewells – and a few Merry Christmases and Happy Hanukkahs, of course.

I went home pondering these things in my heart.

And I’ve never looked at Christmas the same way since.


So what do you think? Have we been guilty of going too soft – or pushing too hard – on keeping Christ in Christmas?

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(Tinsel Star of David photo from David Goehring • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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8 thoughts on “What a Rabbi Taught Me About Keeping Christ In Christmas”

  1. Great article and excellent points. In stead of warring about this why can’t we just show love and realize that the world is going to be the world and the Church has no place in judging the world. Maybe if we start looking at the issues within the Church and work on getting ourselves straight and set a good example in word and speech, maybe, just maybe the world will take notice.

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Michael. It seems like a lot of the so-called “war on Christmas” comes from Christians getting upset that non-Christians aren’t acting like Christians. Instead, as you say, we should put our emphasis on acting more Christian ourselves – or, better yet, more Christ-like.

    1. Hi, Jay. The conversation in this post happened several years ago, and the rabbi has since retired. I’m not sure how i would get in touch with him today. If I can find that information, and if he’d be willing to have a conversation, I’ll email you about it.

  2. I also think that Santa Claus is not a secular figure. He is based on the real Bishop of Myra, Saint Nikolaus, and his saint’s day (Dec 6) is a celebration of his generosity. Santa Claus is Dutch for Saint Nikolaus. The name became popular in the United States because the people in New Amsterdam (now New York City) were Dutch, and the Americans took the Dutch idea of Santa Claus and made it their own. Santa Claus may have been commercialized, from Coke onwards, but that is different from being a secular figure.

    1. That’s true, Laura. When our kids were younger we taught them about the historical Saint Nikolaus and how his story inspired the current stories of Santa, even though the current Santa was make-believe and secular.

      By making that distinction and always telling them that the current version of Santa was make-believe, we got the best of both worlds. They got to pretend about Santa, but they knew the story of Jesus was real – and it was always front and center.

      I’d have mentioned the St Nikolaus story in this post, and may still in a future post, but the the picture of Santa on the napkin that started this conversation wasn’t a drawing of the bishop of Myra – it was the modern, red-suited, reindeer-flying, chimney-climbing, coke-drinking Santa, which I think you’d agree with me and the rabbi is a secular figure.

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