• Eugene Weekly Loves You!
Share |

A Very Merry Non-Christmas

Rituals of the Midwest American Jew during the season of Santa

Growing up Jewish in cold, snowy Minnesota meant I knew my community well. But it also meant that I had to navigate the winter holidays — surrounded by my extended interfaith family — by explaining to outsiders that, “No, I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I have family that does.” 

This usually prompts a question: “What do you do on Christmas then?” And like many American Jews, I answer: “Chinese food and a movie.” 

But like most things in life, the answer is usually more nuanced. Some years, we’d take a road trip to get away from family and enjoy the outdoors. Some years, we would run into members of my family’s synagogue at the Chinese restaurant closest to us. Some years, we would join my dad’s siblings — my dad converted to Judaism — for (gasp!) un-kosher oyster stew on Christmas Eve.

Often, these extended familial celebrations brought all sides of my family together to make potato latkes and sit near the Christmas tree. 

My grandpa, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, would sit next to my other grandpa, a firmly Welsh-American man, and they’d talk about World War II and current politics. We’d give my non-Jewish cousins their Christmas presents (to be opened the next morning) and they’d watch as we’d open our Hanukkah presents in front of them.

I remember eating oyster stew, a Danish dish, for the first time as my mom watched wide-eyed. I also remember making a latke shaped like the state of Wisconsin with my Uncle Wes.

But usually we’d end up at Crystal Garden, a Chinese restaurant across the river from Saint Paul, Minnesota, with half our Jewish community in tow. Over tangerine mock duck and plates of steaming white rice, we’d talk about what movies we’d watch that night.

This year, I’ll be returning home to Minnesota for the holidays and winter break — and my family will celebrate our mish-mash of holidays together, as we usually do. This is the first major Jewish holiday after the passing of my Uncle Michael, who we would usually run into at Crystal Garden. 

As I prepared to go home, I started to wonder what people of similar or dissimilar backgrounds do for Christmas, especially when they don’t celebrate it in a “typical” way. 

It turns out that the Jews and Chinese food thing isn’t a regional oddity, so that might be one thing. According to an article in The Atlantic, what began as the co-mingling of two non-Christian immigrant groups in New York City became a widespread tradition across the country. So what are the options in Eugene?

With a variety of Chinese restaurants to choose from in Eugene, the small Jewish community here will surely be out enjoying some food and company.

Temple Beth Israel, one of the synagogues here, also has an event marked on its calendar for Christmas Eve entitled “Mitzvah Kitchen presents a Very Jewish Christmas Eve.” Currently, there are no extra event details on the synagogue’s website except for that title and the time: 5 to 8 pm.

For those who might want to participate in a typical non-Christmas tradition another way, Cinemark 17 will be showing movies such as Pitch Perfect 3 and Star Wars: The Last Jedi on Christmas Eve and Day. Regal Valley River Center Stadium 15 and Imax will be showing a few movies, including the classic It’s a Wonderful Life.

But maybe seeing family, in whatever capacity that may be, is more your thing. The winter holidays are a great time for that — even if your family is like mine, always shifting our plans. So enjoy old traditions, or maybe start a new one. I hear that sweet and sour chicken is a great replacement for a Christmas ham.