From our Jan. 6, 1899 issue
From our Jan. 6, 1899 issue

In the 1890s, Bay Area Jews said a cautious ‘yes’ to Christmas

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“It would be almost a fanatical affectation for Jews to ignore it, however much they may dissociate themselves from a religious celebration of it.”

“It” was Christmas, and in an 1896 editorial headlined “A Jewish opinion on Christmas,” The Emanu-El, a forebear of this newspaper, put forward the idea that “the greatest festival of Christendom” had — for the most part — become a secular holiday.

Should Jews participate in the season of sleigh bells and holly? It’s been an open question since the end of the 19th century, when this paper was founded. But the early takes on the issue were mostly a tempered, if slightly disappointed, “yes.”

The newspaper’s first audience was Reform Jews with a strong pro-America, assimilationist bent. While they honored the countries of their birth — many came from the large, cultured cities of Germany and the Netherlands — they truly believed in America as a place where Jews could be modern, while remaining Jews.

That meant you could participate in Christmas, but you had to be aware of “the line of demarcation to be drawn between a genuine unsectarian fellowship with our Christian neighbors and any tampering with our own religious convictions and principles,” as the 1896 editorial put it.

But how far a Jew could go in recognizing Christmas was a tricky question. The lure of shiny lights and bright wrapping paper could go too far. Not to mention the parties!

“Too many Jews, it is to be feared, pay greater attention to the social observance of Christmas than they do to the religious celebration of our own hallowed seasons,” the editorial posited.

So where to draw the line? Or, as we put it two years later, in 1898, “Have we any safeguards to protect our people against the fascinations of their social surroundings?

Well, not really.

“Here in America certain things have happened of which you must take notice, gentlemen,” the 1898 article continued. “Here you avail yourselves of every advantage, social or political. You believe it wrong to set up barriers, social or otherwise. You are earnest advocates of homogeneity; you desire your children to associate freely and fully with their neighbors. You mingle with your Christian fellow-citizens. You do business with them. You invite them to worship in your synagogues; you sit with them in your lodges; you contract friendships with them and desire to see them in your social circles.”

That desire was assimilation at work, and the gradual adoption of customs was “inevitable,” we wrote, adding: “We cannot live near each other in perfect peace and amity without copying and learning from each other.”

The only way to prevent cultural intermingling was to just stop associating with other peoples altogether. But the cost of that drastic step would be like returning to a medieval view of the world.

There is no need for drastic protest against the cult of Santa Claus.

The author, speaking on behalf of Reform Judaism, actually didn’t think that Jews should celebrate Christmas (it was a bit of a moral weakness, he believed), but thought that the cost of enforcing this kind of separation wasn’t worth it.

“Close your homes and your synagogues against the dissenting brother; make yourself once again an imperium in imperio, a peculiar people, and you may succeed in suppressing a few mixed marriages and a few Christmas trees, but, good God, at what cost!”

In the Jan. 6, 1899 issue, our social column included this tidbit: “Miss Gertrude Lowenthal, the young daughter of Mr. and Mrs. H. H. Lowenthal, gave a party on Sunday last to her schoolmates at the home of her parents, 2912 Clay street. Games were indulged in, followed by songs and recitations, and a Santa Claus appeared and distributed to all a Christmas gift.”

A few years later, in 1904, founding editor Jacob Voorsanger, who was from the Netherlands, made a plea for tolerance around Christmas as a holiday with pagan roots and a main character — Santa Claus — who embodied the spirit of winter.

“Santa Claus is a fine old fellow,” Voorsanger wrote, “and even as ‘Sinter Klaus Bisschop,’ that is as ‘Bishop Santa Claus,’ we Dutch boys had no objection to the old traveller of the chimneys, because he was strictly non-sectarian and never forgot to fill our stockings even though we lived in the [Jewish] quarter and had a holy horror of anything that was not strictly Jewish — orthodox.

“But Santa Claus always was an exception,” he continued. “He was always welcome. We understood his religion, because he had cakes, candies, and presents in his capacious pockets, and we never asked him any questions so long as we woke up and found our stockings well filled.

“That, of course, is the tolerant, generous attitude of golden youth; why should old age dissent from it? There is no need for drastic protest against the cult of Santa Claus.”

Both Hanukkah and Christmas borrowed from ancient traditions of celebrating the darkest days of winter, he added.

“For even in the quarter the pleasant Hannukka gatherings, with their games and plays and their pleasant meals and their holy remembrance of children were outwardly not very different from similar assemblies amongst the Christian neighbors to whom Santa Claus was no stern theologian, only a dear friend who came to celebrate with them and to help them worthily to see the old year brought to a fitting close.”

But that was fine, Voorsanger put forth, because those young Dutch Jewish children still gave the larger amount of their love and respect to the Jewish holidays. Maybe the lit windows full of Christmas treasures drew their eyes, but they always returned home to the “joys of the Hannukka lamps” and the traditions they were born to.

“Christmas never supplanted Hannukka in the old Jewish home,” he wrote.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.