Photo: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
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Christmas Envy—in Israel

Secular Jews have started to appreciate the nonreligious aspects of the holiday, from blinking lights to chocolate Santas to Mariah Carey’s Yuletide hits

Dana Kessler
December 19, 2018
Photo: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images

One of the biggest highlights of my family’s yearly calendar is our end-of-December trip to Nazareth. Every year, we travel from our home in Tel Aviv with the kids—and sometimes friends, too—to view the splendor of the huge Christmas tree at Mary’s Well Square in Israel’s largest Arab city, which just happens to be the historical hometown of Jesus.

We’re Jewish. We don’t really have a clue about Christian theology or care about the beautiful family values of Christianity’s top holiday. We just love Christmas—for all of the most superficial reasons. We love to gaze at the huge decorated shimmering tree and to listen to the holiday’s greatest hits mixtape blasting out of the local PA system. We love to spread Christmas cheer through social media by uploading adorable photos of our kids in cheap Santa caps purchased from Nazareth’s Christmas market. We love to go visit the Basilica of the Annunciation, just because it’s so damn beautiful. And we love to finish this yearly daytrip off with a hearty Arab dinner of lamb shoulder at one of the city’s traditional restaurants—which over the years has become our very own version of Christmas dinner.

When we’re done with Nazareth, we visit another large fake Christmas tree: the one standing in Clock Square in Jaffa. It’s smaller and not quite as impressive, but it has it’s own advantages. It’s just a short bus ride away from our house, so we can go after school, eat hummus in Jaffa, and be back before bath time.

This is what you could call Christmas envy. We love the holiday, even knowing it’s not ours. And our family isn’t the only one. Each year, more and more secular Jewish Israelis who celebrate Christmas—as a commercial event, if not a religious holiday—come out of the closet. The kids aren’t taught anything about it at school—it’s not our holiday—and we, the parents, don’t know much about it either, but we all know one thing: It’s superfun!

Being the place where Jesus was born, the Holy Land is obviously big on Christmas tourism. I read on an online Israeli tourism website that Christmas in Israel is on many Christians’ bucket list. People travel from all over the world to celebrate Christmas in one of Israel’s major Christian sites—to experience the holiness of Midnight Mass (in Latin) at the Church of St. Catherine in Bethlehem or walk down the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City. But for secular Jewish Israelis who enjoy Christmas, the holiday isn’t about Israel’s Christian holy sites. We love the Christmas lights of Nazareth and Jaffa, but only because they remind us of London or New York—and frankly, we would much rather have a white Christmas at Rockefeller Center (which is on our own bucket list).

When we were kids, nobody took us to Nazareth or Bethlehem at Christmastime—not our parents and not our schools. We might have been exposed to Christmas for the first time on formative trips abroad with our parents, but most of all we learned about it from Christmas episodes of TV shows like Full House and Beverly Hills, 90210. Like everything else in those shows, Christmas looked glamorous and wonderful, while Jewish holidays usually seem Spartan and are never sexy.

For secular Jewish Israelis, Christmas is a fantasy realm far, far away, which has nothing to do with religion or even history. Like McDonalds, H&M, or M&Ms, for the average Jewish Israeli, Christmas symbolizes chul (the abbreviation for chutz la’aretz), meaning “abroad”—code for shopping sprees, bright lights, and all the colorful delights of the global big city. Christmas is Times Square, Christmas is Disneyland, Christmas is Las Vegas. We don’t care that it’s not ours and we don’t care what it means—we want it. And slowly but surely we are starting to get it.

Capitalism will beat religion and tradition every time, and a gradual change is evident everywhere. Take the Grinch, for instance. Even though Dr. Seuss’s books have always been popular in Israel and translated to Hebrew, the 1950s children’s classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, about a misanthropic furry green creature who sets out to destroy the holiday, has never been translated into Hebrew until this year (coinciding with the new 3D computer-animated film The Grinch, which has also been dubbed in Hebrew, to the delight of young local viewers).

Traditionally, Jewish Israelis obviously didn’t celebrate Christmas, just as they didn’t celebrate any other non-Jewish holiday. But nowadays things are different. In the age of the internet and globalization, Israelis feel they are entitled to all the goodness the commercial world has to offer. Most Jews still don’t go as far as actually erecting a Christmas tree in their living room—that would be, at least for now, taking it a bit too far—but many celebrate it to various degrees.

And you don’t even have to go to Nazareth, Jaffa, Bethlehem, or Haifa to feel the Christmas vibe anymore. Sure, wherever there are Christian communities in Israel, you can find the full Christmas experience, and since the 1990s post-Soviet aliyah, the country is full of Russian delicatessens and grocery stores that offer Christmas goodies. But even without those, today most Israeli malls have a little stall of chocolate Santas and reindeer knickknacks and in many mainstream gift shops you can find Christmas-themed presents come December. Tel Avivi hipsters love to wear vintage Christmas sweaters; young lovers might surprise each other with a cute pair of red-and-green striped Christmas fuzzy socks; fancy chocolatiers might have Christmas displays in their shop windows; a hip bar might blast out Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” or Wham!’s “Last Christmas” in an ironic but nonetheless festive way.

Even Hanukkah is becoming more Christmasy, gradually morphing from the humble shtetl-like atmosphere of any Jewish holiday to the seductive sparkly flashiness of Christmas in any big city of the western world. Traditionally, for Hanukkah Ashkenazi Israelis would eat sufganiyot—round doughnut balls filled with a synthetic kind of strawberry jam—and Sephardi Israelis would eat sfenj (the Maghrebi doughnut that isn’t filled with anything at all). Nowadays Israeli bakeries sell colorful gourmet sufganiyot with every flavor of filling and color of topping. (Sufganiyot filled with creme patissiere and Absolut Vodka, sprinkled with almond crumble plus a profiterole perched on top, are more immoral than sexy Santa lingerie.) Dreidels used to be made out of wood or cheap Chinese plastic. Now many of them light up as you spin them, with a very distinct kind of Christmas logic. Sure, Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, but it didn’t use to look like the Vegas strip before our Christmas envy made it so. And frankly, why not? Since the term Chrismukkah was popularized in 2003 by Seth (Adam Brody) in the American TV drama The O.C., Israelis, too, learned that the two holidays are not mutually exclusive and could actually go hand in hand. Thus, more and more children are receiving nicely wrapped presents come the winter holidays, and not only a few coins (real or chocolate) of Hanukkah gelt like we used to.

It’s hard to predict where this trend will go in the future, but for now, many of us have ourselves a merry mini-Christmas (on top of Hanukkah), and not only is it fun, it even makes us feel a little bit naughty.

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.