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Being Jewish on Christmas

December 22, 2013 | by Debbie Gutfreund

Amidst all the talk about eggnog, I realized the special blessing of Shabbat.

People talk about strange things at five in the morning.  Maybe it’s because of the eerie light of the fading moon. Or maybe it’s the pre-coffee, brain fog.  To get to spinning class this early, most of us are up by 4:30am. We climb on our bikes while the sky is still black and star studded, and we vent to each other as we warm up. Hilary has an awful boss who is driving her crazy. Katherine’s son is failing in school. Patty’s husband has just lost his job. Ann’s mother is in the hospital. Kim’s car broke down again. We complain. We console. We cycle as the first light of day climbs through the trees.  

But this week everyone is speaking about Christmas. First there is the tree discussion. Where to buy it. How they bring it home. Who decorates it, and who doesn’t bother anymore. Then the shopping conversation begins and seems to go on forever. The list of people to buy presents for. What to buy. How to wrap it. When to hit the stores. And then there is the cooking discussion about dishes that I’ve never even seen.  Recipes for ham and shrimp cocktails and the sauces to go with them. When they serve eggnog. If they serve eggnog.  When they drink eggnog. If they drink eggnog.  How to cut the calories in eggnog.

And then the family dynamics topic arises. How Uncle Jeffrey always ruins the holiday. Why the sister’s new boyfriend doesn’t want to come and why the mother thinks this is a red flag for their relationship. How the husband can’t stand guests and always sits in front of the television while she has to deal with all the coats and greetings herself.

I am nodding in sympathy throughout most of these conversations until Heidi glances at me.

“Are you already finished this year, now that Thanksgiving and Hannukah have passed?” she asks me.

“I’m all done,” I answer. The other women look like they want to throw their water bottles at me. No standing in long lines in crowded stores. No buying the wrong presents for the wrong people with a maxed out credit card. No ham or eggnog or pine tree needles all over my living room floor.

“Hey, stop glaring at her. Don’t forget she has five kids,” Linda pipes up for me. Everyone laughs. Half the class has no children, and a few others have a maximum of two kids. But five? This makes me officially the craziest cycler in our group even if I don’t have to buy all of them presents during the worst week to shop in America.

And then I explain how anyway, I make Shabbos each week. As the instructor tells us to raise the resistance on our bikes to a steep hill, I go through my weekly to do list for Friday. How we all dress in our finest clothing. How the table is set with China and silver. How there are fresh flowers in a vase and shining candles. How we say blessings and sing songs and speak about our week.

They don’t believe me. Every week? You do that every week?

And as we switch our dials back down to a flat road, Lizzie yells out, “You’re like making Christmas every week!”

I laugh, but I don’t tell them what I’m really thinking. Making Shabbos is a lot of work. But it’s a different kind of work than the stressed out, make-this-all-go away kind. Getting ready for Shabbos fills me with peace the same way that the Sabbath itself fills me with peace. I love the smell of our kitchen on Friday mornings when all the food is in the oven. I love preparing my kids’ beautiful outfits and setting out our fanciest dishes. I think about the reflection of my Shabbos candles in the window; how they light up the darkness with their tiny flames. How they shine in my children’s eyes as I bless them. How they bring the joy and wonder of all of Creation into our home.

I love creating space for a day with no to-do list.  It’s like getting off the bike, stepping back and making a place within myself to just be. But I can’t talk because we’re now in sprinting mode. Barely able to breathe. Pedaling furiously towards dawn. Afterwards, we head out of the gym with our towels around our necks and our hearts somehow lighter.

“Happy Holidays!” I call out as I head to my car.

“Have a good Sabbath!” Katherine yells back. And I think about how blessed I am. To have the light of Shabbos. To have the light of peace. To have the light of family. To have this precious cycling for the soul. Wrapped up just for me in the layers of Creation. As the sun sets this week on Friday afternoon, I cover my eyes and bless the infinite flames. And say thank You for making me a Jew today.  

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