My family has always been culturally Jewish, despite following few of the religious laws. And at this time of year, I become especially aware of how we have adapted to British culture across several generations, bringing together the best bits of Chanukah with the best bits of Christmas – a cultural homage to the religion of our country and to the religion of our ancestors. So is the best way to ‘be British’ to create our own traditions, feeding off history? Or is there still a single, homogeneous ‘British’ way of doing things?
Less than 40% of Britons described themselves as Christian in 2014, a significant decline from the 65% of 1983. Therefore, less than half of the country believes in the origin story of Christmas, despite 91% of us celebrating it. So while religion may be on a downward spiral, there is no doubt that Christmas is bigger than ever – even in a time of social distancing. The cynics may argue that the commercialisation of the holiday is the cause, the fake Christmas spirit hustled up by businesses to make their products sell through the self-righteous generosity of the holiday season. And while I won’t deny that economic incentives are often behind the growth of traditions such as holiday shopping, card buying, or Christmas film watching, I would like to think that the attitude of the nation doesn’t solely rely on monetary materialism. Instead, I would argue that the secularisation of the holiday has helped to make it more accessible, more universal. The themes of the season are being morphed in our consciousness from being about God’s love for humankind, to being about humankind’s love for each other, from being about our appreciation for a single child, to being about the appreciation we have for each other. And the commercialisation of the holiday has served to encourage these universal themes.
Yet if we look at the origin of the holiday, we find that not only do such motifs outdate all the Christmas adverts and shop decorations in the world, but that they even outdate Christianity itself. The Jewish festival of Chanukah is another holiday of lights at this time of year, as is the Hindu and Sikh holiday of Diwali. Even the Pagan winter solstice festival has been argued to influence the traditions and timing of Christmas. There is clearly some ancient importance to celebrating light and goodness in the coldest months of the year, and celebrating love and joy in a time of darkness.
So surely the true meaning of the winter festive season isn’t tied up in commercial or even in religious ideas, but is instead a secular appreciation of thanks? It’s an international, not national, time to celebrate.
But how does this tie up with the concept of ‘being British’? We are a nation of diversity, with immigrants from all over the world, with cultures from many different places. Yet the idea of a winter festival is deeply entrenched in all our customs, no matter from where they stem. So the best way to ‘be British’ must be to combine all the traditions that contribute to our way of living – to merge our cultural heritage with our national heritage and with our international connections.
Sometimes people ask me if I feel I am degrading the religious importance of Christmas by celebrating it in a secular way, or if I’m betraying my Jewish heritage by celebrating it at all. I say I am not. I am remaining true to the spirit of the season, to the deeply human need to bring light to a time of darkness, participating in British traditions and Jewish ones because both cultures are a part of my identity.
And I enjoy it deeply.