What to the Atheist Existentialist Jew is the Meaning of Christmas?

Every year I ask myself: Do I go with the flow? Or is it another holiday season of mu shu pork?


Like many of my fellow travelers in godless Judaism – from Matt Stone to Mark Zuckerberg, Albert Einstein and Sarah Silverman – I've always had a tough time figuring this one out. Every holiday season I ask myself: Should I go with the flow and experience the true meaning of Christmas? Or should I eat Chinese food alone again? It's my annual Xmas kampf.

There's no doubt that Christmas dinner with the goyim can be fun. It's friendship. It's gluttony. It's Jimmy Stewart and Julio Iglesias. It's what Americans do. I get it.

But in the (non-)spirit of the atheist existentialist philosopher Jean Paul-Sartre, I feel a moral imperative to live authentically. If I'm going to be as true to myself as possible, if I'm going to reject the symphony of sappy conformity that begins at Halloween and builds to a kitschy crescendo by New Year's eve, there's no better time to be myself than on Jesus's birthday.

It would be bad faith on my part to pretend that the Christmas holidays don't make me a little uneasy. While the presence of honey-glazed ham and the soothing vibrato of Mariah Carey (but I repeat myself!) cause most Americans to waft into a dense fog of haimish holiday nostalgia, even the tiniest Christmas ornament reminds me that I am, by heritage and temperament, a cultural outsider. The whole idea of worshiping another suffering Jewish guy who thinks he's the son of God, has always made me feel, as Sartre would say, a little bit nauseated.

Hanukkah is supposed to be the Pepto Bismol for my Yuletide queasiness. That's the whole point of elevating an otherwise forgettable week on the Hebrew calendar into the apex of the Jewish year. Ever since its revival among Jewish immigrants who settled in the American midwest in the late 19th century, Hanukkah has been promoted as a countervailing force against the immovable object that is Christmas. 

In other words, Hanukkah was born out of anxiety. Like a quivering Ren and Stimpy trampled underneath Santa's galloping reindeer, Hanukkah is perpetually nervous and competitive about its bigger and bolder Christian rival. As if a defensive one-upmanship was the reason for the season, Hanukkah openly brags, "You've got one day of presents? Ha! We've got eight!" As George Washington University history professor Jenna Weissman puts it, Hanukkah is the "penis envy" of Christmas equivalents. (What did you think all those menorah candles stood for?)

Worse still for me, the myth of Hanukkah is all about miracles. And I don't do miracles.

So instead of indulging in the neurosis of Hanukkah or conforming to cloying Christmas rituals, I've learned to take a perverse pleasure in the tension of resistance. While the rest of world is tucking into their turkeys on Christmas Day, I'll be wandering the empty streets of the silent city, making a solo pilgrimage to Great Wall Szechuan House or New Big Wong or Dragon Express II. Alone with my chop sticks and the unbearable silence of an indifferent world, I will feast on a heaping bowl of hot and sour soup. Then I'll say a heartfelt prayer to the earthly personification of atheist Jewish Christmas, the militant, yet delightfully crispy anti-Santa known as General Tso. 

As Sartre wrote,

Authenticity, it is almost needless to say, consists in having a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks it involves, in accepting it … sometimes in horror and hate. (Anti-Semite and Jew, 1946)

Atheist existentialist Jewish Christmas isn't easy, but it is authentically me.

If you think my Xmas existential dread makes me a Socratic Scrooge, last week Reason TV explored something a bit more cheerful: the idea of libertarian existentialism. Watch Why Jean-Paul Sartre Should Have Been a Libertarian! right here.