Once a year, my family hauls up huge plastic bins of decorations from the basement. We unpack strands of beads and sparkly ornaments — my current favorite is a glittery plastic avocado half. This annual decorating blitz happens not in December but in early fall, and we hang the decorations not on an evergreen in our living room but in a small wooden hut, rebuilt from prefab panels that live for most of the year in the garage, on the backyard patio. This is our sukkah.
The Jewish holiday of Sukkot, for those who consider themselves bound by the rules of traditional Jewish law, requires one to “dwell” in the sukkah for eight days. We eat all our meals in this little wooden booth, with branches for ceiling; a sukkah’s roof must allow for the stars to be seen. For most of my life, my exposure to Christmas decorations has been oriented toward that week in autumn; I delighted in finding new ornaments and strands of colored lights to (mis)place in the sukkah.
This year, I found myself in a place where Christmas was not just on TV but in my entryway, in the form of a tiny tree, in my common room, in the lives of people I have grown to love deeply during my first semester here. Christmas is a religious observance for some of my friends and a cultural one for others, but for the first time it pervaded my entire life. This closeness made Christmas simultaneously less and more alien; I understand ritual and big meals and family time, and this made it easy to appreciate the significance of Christmas. On the other hand, increased intimacy with the holiday made me feel how deeply it is not mine.
I grew up living and continue to live a life that is out of sync with mainstream American culture. I spend one day each week without using any technology as an observer of the Jewish Sabbath. I devote time — in high school, it was half of my long school day — to the study of texts in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic. In class and in social settings, I periodically feel like I’m living in translation, as I struggle to find the English words to communicate a Talmudic logical principle or a Yiddish idiom that is part of my natural vocabulary. And my “holiday season” is the early fall, when Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot occur in quick succession.
This period, called “the chagim,” or “the holidays,” by observant Jews, is a time of family, ritual, familiar foods and melodies. It’s also a time of moderate chaos, family strife and conflicting obligation to different people and places. These are my “holidays.”
In the past month, I was invited to participate in innumerable “holiday” events. I was surrounded by “holiday” decorations that are aesthetically foreign to me. While my family uses Christmas decorations in our sukkah, the green and red of Christmas trees and mistletoe are so exotic as to be almost taboo. I received three emails about the Freshman Holiday Dinner.
All of these feel like Christmas to me. Despite some Hanukkah decorations in the dining halls that nod to what is a minor, albeit lovely, occurrence in my life, “the holidays” at Yale were Christmas wrapped in the sparkly paper of what is at best pluralism and at worst tokenism. “Holiday” events feel as viscerally “not mine” as they would if they were explicitly identified with Christmas. But when it’s a “holiday” party, I don’t get to politely opt out in the same way I could for a Christmas party.
The consequence of choosing to live a life that adheres to my understanding of my religious obligations is that I am slightly out of sync with the world. I’m at peace with this; it makes my life and my Yale education richer. I’m content to feel more like an outsider in the month of December. There will be parties celebrating things I do not celebrate and songs alien to my ears. If these were ”Christmas” parties and “Christmas” songs, I could communicate this easily.
I at least had an excuse to not attend the Freshman Holiday Dinner. It was scheduled this year on Friday night, when I was at Slifka observing Shabbat, as many Jewish Yalies do weekly. It’s hard to see the “holiday” dinner as more than a shallow attempt at inclusion when this purportedly major part of the Yale experience is scheduled to conflict with a regular observance of hundreds of students. I’m looking forward to sharing my friends’ joy next December, and being immersed in a season that emphasizes light, community and giving. But please, call it Christmas season.
Avigayil Halpern is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .