Sunday, December 23, 2007

What Gentiles should Know about the "Holiday Season"

by a cranky Jew
(revised from last year and re-posted by popular demand. feedback welcome as always.)

I do not celebrate Christmas.

Please don’t tell me to have a Merry Christmas. This is comparable to telling a Canadian happy 4th of July.

Christmas is not a “secular” or “American” holiday. It is a Christian holiday.
If you celebrate it in a secular way, it is still a secular Christian holiday. (If I celebrate Pesach/Passover in a humanist style, without reference to G-d, is it then an “American” holiday? No. It’s a secular Jewish holiday, and it’s no more universal without the G-d language than with it.)

Some Jews do celebrate Christmas. That doesn't make it a Jewish holiday.
Jews may celebrate Christmas for many reasons. Many Jews have Christians in their family. Most Jews in the US grow up in predominantly Christian communities. Many Jews have tried to assimilate over the generations, and that has meant adopting Christian practices like having a Christmas tree. It's still a Christian holiday. Just because you know a Jew who celebrates Christmas, doesn't give you the prerogative to expect or require me to celebrate, too.

Chanukah is not a Jewish version of Christmas.

Christmas is an important holiday for Christians, based on one of the central stories of the Christian faith. Chanukah is not even a particularly religious holiday. It is, primarily, a cultural/historical holiday commemorating a military victory of a group of Jews against imperial oppressors (specifically, Syrian Greeks). It’s kinda like the aforementioned 4th of July. Only older, and with miracles.

Chanukah does not occur on December 25th.

It is an eight-day festival beginning on 25 Kislev by the Jewish calendar, which is a lunar /solar calendar. The corresponding date on the Gregorian calendar, the one commonly used in public life, ranges from mid-November through late December. Therefore, do not tell me to have a happy Chanukah unless you know when Chanukah falls this year, and that it’s not over. Cheat sheet for 2007/5768: Chanukah is way over.

Chanukah may be spelled several ways
Hanukkah, Hanukah, Chanukkah, Chanukah, etc. That’s because it’s a Hebrew word, and it’s actually spelled like this: חֲנוּכָּה. Chanukah is probably the closest transliteration for the Hebrew - more like Channikke for the Yiddish. It sounds like it looks, only the initial H or Ch sounds like the guttural sound at the end of the composer Bach.
I don’t care how you spell it. Just don’t tell me how weird it is that it has multiple spellings. I’m over it. If you can’t say the Ch sound without spitting on me, then just say H and keep your germs to yourself.

There’s no such thing as a Chanukah bush.

Did you really need to be told that? Christian hegemony appropriated the tradition from Celtic pagans, and now is trying to impose it on Jews. We already have pretty stuff for the holiday. We don’t need Jew-ish-ified trees, wreathes, elves or mistletoe.

Some Jews Have Chanukah Bushes.

See above, under "Some Jews Celebrate Christmas"

Chanukah is not a good excuse to tell me about your best friend, neighbor, or distant relative who is a Jew.

If you didn’t care enough to tell me the rest of the year, then I don’t care to hear about it now.

Don’t try to impress me with how much you know about Chanukah or about Judaism.

It’s a safe bet I know a whole lot more than that about Christmas and Christianity. Not cause I’m so smart or so studied. Just cause y’all are everywhere.

“Happy Holidays” is not an acceptable secular substitute for “Merry Christmas.”
No matter what words you use, we both know you’re only saying it because of Christmas. Otherwise, you would say it in September/October and March/April, when I’m observing major religious holidays, as well as in December, when you are.

This is not about your Free Speech.

This year, a few people who should know better have said thing to me about Christmas that sound suspiciously like the ultra-conservative "war on Christmas" rhetoric. Stuff like, "Department stories cannot dictate how their employees greet customers during the holidays. If they want to say Merry Christmas, that's their free speech." Or "People (read: Jews) can't stop people (read: Christians) from putting up Christmas decorations in the town square. That's their free speech."
Good try, but, this is not about your free speech. Employees do not have the right to say whatever they want while they're working. They sell their free speech along with their labor during the hours they're getting paid. And despite federal law to the contrary, I do not buy the money=speech equation. Go ahead, speak about Christmas all you want. But don't use public funds to speak about Christmas.
Anyway, no one is trying to stop you from saying Merry Christmas to your friends and loved ones, or on your Christmas cards. That's exactly where the greeting belongs. I just don't want you saying it to me, especially not all day every day for all of December. And I really don't want to pay for your Christmas decorations through public funds, and be subjected to them in public spaces.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

More Gelt Trivia from Christian & Jewish traditions

Apparently the word verification has not been working for some people.

So, here's from the "food timeline," via Denise:

The eariest references we find in USA print to indivually foil-wrapped chocolates dates to the early 20th century. The oldest references we find specifically describing coin-shapes dates to the 1930s. According the the advertisements below, candy coins have been promoted as treats for pirate theme parties, anniversary decorations, and holiday gifts.

"Our big 5-lb Christmas box of 'Athletic Girl' chocolates, 99c box...Many hand wrapped in gold or silver foil."
---S. Kann Sons advertisement, Washington Post, December 20, 1908 (p. A1)

"What to serve at a buffet style "pirate" party was a recent request that came to the Tribune's cooking deparment...fill the chest with those "pieces of gold" candies which are chocoalte wafers wrapped in gold foil adn stamped to represent coins."
---"Hostess Need Not Walk the Plank at Pirate Party, Chicago Daily Tribune, December 9, 1938 (p. 24)

" for things other than Santa Clauses. Toys, for which Czechosolvakia long has been famous, are being made out of it...Foil, painted realistically, covers each toy-shape...Milk chocolate appears, too, in inexpensive Christmas tree decorations--pine cones, Yule bells and so on...In addition, the versatile chocolate has been molded into "alphabet blocks"...a "zoo"...and a "sewing kit"...At Loft stores a treasure chest ($1.25) holds foil wrapped chocolate "coins," when empty, the chest may be used as a bank."
---"News of Food: Imaginative Boxes, Bewildering Contents Make Christmas Candies More Attractive," Jane Nickerson, New York Times, December 18, 1948 (p. 9)

"Hanukkah has a special delight for children. Gifts are distributed, along with candy coins covered with gold foil."
---"8-Say Observance of Hanukkah Opens," New York Times, December 11, 1963 (p. 14)
Who invented candy coins? Our food history sources do not reveal any particular person/company/place claiming to have made the first items.

And here's from Cian:
Bishop Nicholas (who was to become Saint Nicholas) was walking in the street and walked by the house of a man with three daughters. They were a poor family, and the father had nothing to offer as a dowry, although all his daughters were of marrying age. With no money, the father may have been forced to sell his daughters into slavery. St. Nicholas (who was not a saint at the time) threw a bag of gold coins
through an open window to provide enough for the eldest girl to be wed. The bag landed in a stocking that was hung to dry by the fire. He repeated the gesture twice more so all the daughters of the family were able to marry.

That is why people leave out stockings for Santa Claus, it's a carryover from a celebration of St. Nicholas Day (December 6). In a similar fashion (as sometimes the story is the daughters' shoes and not stockings), we leave a shoe by the back door on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, and he leaves treats if you have been good.

Depending on the story, he chases children and beats them if they've been bad, or
they get nothing. The shoe is by the back door as a gesture of secrecy to good deeds (which St. Nicholas was said to be very good at). There's a stress in the New Testament on having a private connection with G-d through good deeds and prayers.
And finally, the explanation that I learned growing up:

First of all, some notes about language. "Gelt" is a Yiddish word meaning "money." The words origin is from the German word for "gold," but in modern Yiddish, and I think dating back at least a few centuries, it refers to any money, not only to gold coins. And since it is a Yiddish word, it is a Jewish word. The various Christian traditions related to foil-wrapped coins may or may not be related to the parallel Jewish traditions - I'm still curious about that. What is clear though, is that Christians would never have called those coins "gelt," until English-speaking American Jews turned it into the Yinglish word that refers only to chocolate-covered coins for playing dreydl with, and not to real money at all - which I'm guessing would be some in the last 50 years or so.

So, about gelt as part of the dreydl game: At Chanukah it is traditional to play dreydl, a gambling game played with a little top (called a dreydl) which is so mind-numblingly random, I'm amazed when the game holds the attention of anyone over 4. The dreydl has 4 sides each marked with a Hebrew letters, which together are an acronym for the the Hebrew phrase "a miracle happened there," referring to the original story behind the holiday. Each player starts with a roughly equal collection of chocolate gelt. Players bet piles of chocolate gelt, and depending on which letter the dreydl lands on, coins are exchanged with the central pot of gelt.

It has always been my understanding that the dreydl game predates chocolate, and certainly predates individual foil-wrapped chocolate coins. People used to play dreydl with real pennies, or an equivalent coinage in whatever country they were in. Shiny pennies were also the traditional gift that parents gave to children on Chanukah. The chocolate came later. Perhaps the switch occurred when shiny medal money no longer came in sufficient denominations to seem like an exciting gift. I don't know.

At a Chanukah party this year, I heard at least 3 different versions of why we play dreydl. The one I've heard most often is that in various diaspora communities, ruling gentiles forbade Jews to study Jewish texts. Therefore when the Jews studied, they kept some dreydls and coinage around, and if a gentile neighbor happened by, the Jews would quickly close their books and pretend to be gambling rather than studying. Stereotypes of Jews being what they were and are, I guess people believed them. And because of the acronym on the dreydl, children could still be learning Jewish history, religion & language (as well as basic arithmetic) even as they play-acted at being greedy, ignorant money-changers.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Buddhist Gelt?

One more snapshot from the Channukah shopping:

Chanukah stocking stuffers?

Shopping for Chanukah: Potatoes, onions, carrots, soy sour cream, eggs, apple sauce, and parve (non-dairy) chocolate gelt. With some minor exceptions, a shopping list my great-great-grandmother could have could have written. That is, if she had known how to write in English, or at all.

Is Saturday a big shopping day for Christians? Must be, because it took me over two hours to get through my short list. I went to three grocery stores before finding the non-dairy gelt, and it was marked kosher-dairy. (Oh, well. Shared equipment, I guess?) By then I had lost patience and decided to go without the soy sour cream.

However I did find this charming sign, on a gelt display at Trader Joe's. Here's a closeup, so you can see the punchline:

It says, "Coins of the World / Chocolates / $1.99 / Stocking Stuffer!"

I guess they missed the whole thing about gelt being a Jewish word, for a Jewish holiday. I mentioned it to the (very pretty) young man with gorgeous long dreads who was working the checkout. He said, "That's weird, alright."

I said, not wanting to sound angry (as I wasn't really, and certainly not at him), "It's not a big deal. I mean, it's not surprising. I mean, whatever." (Eloquent, I know.) "Yeah," he said. And then, in a perfect Connecticut-Texas twang, he added "Cuz this is a Christian nation we're living in." The bagger, the other customers and I all cracked up laughing.

Later, I learned that it is, apparently, traditional to put chocolate gold coins in Christmas stockings. How or why this came to be, no one seems to know, including the Christians who grew up with the tradition. Appropriation? Or more benign cultural crossover? Or, is it possible, a coincidence? I don't care enough to do the research, but if you do, please share!