My grandfather used to sit in front of the TV on Christmas Eve, watching Midnight Mass in Rome, the Pope orchestrating one of the holiest services of the church year. My first-generation American grandfather, whose parents were cousins from a shtetl in Poland, who just a few hours later would rise to start a new day, wrapping tefillin around his arm and forehead to recite the Jewish morning prayers.
At some point, he’d tell me about all the similarities between the holy Christmas mass and Jewish ritual observance: the Pope’s white cap oddly like the yarmulkes Jewish men wear, the chalice with the symbolic blood of Christ like our Kiddush blessing over wine, the wafer symbolizing the body of the Lord like our braided bread loaves inaugurating a holiday or Sabbath meal.
The rituals, the observances, the recitations, so similar, he’d tell me. And then he’d go about his Jewish ways and live the life he’d always known, observing the other from afar.
We are all similar in the ways we ritualize our lives. Magnifying moments into importance rather than just ticking the time past, one day ushering into the next.
Jews on Christmas ritualize the day when the world is closed and silent by going to movies and eating Chinese food, the only businesses to patronize. Last night, my lovely husband and I made a quiet dinner, sipped wine, watched movies On Demand.
There isn’t always a need to go out in the world, to do do do. As our friends usher in the quiet of their holiday and the magic of the Santa story and the hanging stockings and the morning together as a family opening gifts, we, too, can be silent and peaceful. We can celebrate the silence.
When I was a child, we hung stockings on the chimney, a tradition from my mother’s mid-20th century childhood, when Jews who observed still didn’t want to feel left out. I remember writing notes to Santa and leaving them with milk and cookies, assuring my younger siblings that he was real and he did come to our house, too.
We always awoke on Christmas morning to little trinkets and small toys in our stockings. And we felt part of something.
At some point that tradition fell away, and we didn’t really notice its going. In college, when I was in love with a Catholic boy, I again had a stocking with my name written on the red felt in glitter glue, hanging on the hearth in his parents’ New Jersey home.
I remember rising early that day, the whole house still asleep and quiet. I brushed my teeth, made sure my hair looked alright, and waited for the fun to begin. Finally, his mother played Perry Como over the intercom to rouse John and his siblings from sleep, calling them down to the tree.
I’d brought a Rockwell ornament as a gift to his mother, and had gifts for John, wrapped and stacked with all the other gifts. He had some for me, too. And we opened the presents, set the dining room table with the Christmas china for dinner at 2 p.m.
It was a fun day and an ordinary day. It was a day like any other, except the whole family was home, and we had gone to church the night before.
I remember wearing a red Angora sweater to church and listening to the homily intently, finding meaning in the words. There is always meaning when we stop to listen, no matter the religion, no matter the tradition. We can find ourselves anywhere, and we can find ourselves alone in our community, too.
I love Christmas, even though it’s not my holiday, because of the magic it ushers into this dark time of year. It’s a time of believing in the impossible, of believing in salvation and goodness, of believing in the grace of God and the kindness of people.
Those are qualities to be celebrated, whether you believe Christ was born as a Savior to humans on this day or not. Even the hope and optimism that comes with the birth of a child is a universal belief.
I also love the silence that Christmas gives me. I do not have to cook or bake, wrap or rush. I don’t have to welcome people into the home or usher my children into a car to head to a packed service. We do that every early fall, and we do that most Saturdays.
On Christmas, we can quietly gather together and be grateful for a day of silence and peace. Few cars on the road, no businesses glaring their bright signs.
This morning, I drove to the Jewish Center pool to swim laps in the pre-dawn. The sky was still night-dark at 7:15, when I climbed into the car and started out on the quiet road.
There were so few cars around me, and I loved it. I thought about how nice it would be to have simplicity and silence and peace on a regular day, rather than the constant rush of traffic, the constant rush of rushing to get places and check off to-do lists.
But we can’t appreciate the silence if we don’t have noise. The beauty in a day like today is that it gives us all a break from the mundane and the busy-ness of life and asks us to step outside of routine for 24 hours and recognize the grace, the goodness, the beauty all around us.