Rachel Agnew, TV Presenter, Loose Woman, Cashier No 3 please, After Dinner Speaker and Columnist

Note to Self (25)

Being Jewish at Christmas can be a very confusing time indeed. I grew up in a very traditional Jewish home. We didn’t go to synagogue every week, but we did go to Hebrew classes, celebrate all the Jewish festivals and not once did a pig or a prawn make it’s way over our threshold. What confused me as a child however, was that I was told pretty firmly that Christmas wasn’t one of our holidays, and that’s why we wouldn’t have a Christmas tree, give Christmas presents or sing carols. However, we still enjoyed the full Christmas day experience, usually with a big crowd of other Jewish families. This did rather feel like we were gate-crashing someone else’s party, but for those of you that don’t know, there is a general rule when you’re Jewish that you happily accept any excuse to get together with a group of people and eat.

Of course we have our own festival that happens to coincide with Christmas each year called Chanukah, an 8 day festival commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple during the Maccabean Revolt in 165BC. (Clearly I had to Google that to check my facts.) Chanukah is also known as the Festival of Lights, but unlike Christmas, which can bring enormous electricity bills due to the excessive use of Christmas tree lights, illuminated roof lights and flashing Santas, candles are the only lights that are used during Chanukah. Therefore we’re not only spared the big bills, but we can also feel slightly smug about not contributing to the energy crisis.

Nonetheless, the two holidays are really very different indeed. Christmas is a major and hugely important festival. Chanukah is relatively minor, with the same theme as most Jewish holidays: They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat!!

Now I have to admit to being a rather lapsed, non-practicing Jew these days, although I still respect and try to live by the traditional values the religion teaches (especially the eating a lot part). But I don’t celebrate the festivals and I haven’t lit Chanukah candles for many years. However, like so many Jews, I truly enjoy a secular celebration of Christmas and since I’ve become an adult with my own home, I even allow myself a Christmas tree, which I will thoroughly enjoying decorating, accompanied by the dulcet tones of Bing Crosby and the taste of mulled wine.

And talking of dulcet tones, I’ve also been warming up my vocal chords for my other favourite part of Christmas, my daughter’s school carol concert. Carols contain some of the most beautiful and uplifting music ever written: Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful and Ding Dong Merrily on High just can’t be beaten. And any Jewish confusion or doubt I ever had about singing carols was firmly put to rest many years ago when I first heard that Barbra Streisand had released a Christmas album. With that album, Streisand gave global permission to Jews across the world to enjoy singing Christmas music. So there I’ll be in Ealing Abbey, enthusiastically and vociferously Harking The Herald Angels. Thanks Babs.

So I may still have some inherent confusion, but I’m really looking forward to Christmas, even though I’m not really supposed to and it’s not for the right religious reasons, but is that so unusual in our country today? I will celebrate Christmas the Jewish way – as a secular holiday to share love, laughter, goodwill and of course food – and there can’t really be much wrong with that can there?

Happy Christmas to you all.

NOTE TO SELF: Relax and enjoy, irrespective of your beliefs.

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Rachel Agnew

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