Our rabbis taught: When Adam saw the days getting shorter, he said, "Woe is me, perhaps because of my sin, the world around me is being darkened and returning to chaos; this is my punishment from heaven!" So he began an eight day fast. But as he observed the winter solstice and noted the days getting longer, he said, "This is the world's course," and he observed an eight day festival. In the following year he appointed both as festivals.
-Mishnah, Tractate Avodah Zarah 8a
I attended public elementary school in the Midwest in the 1950s, and Reform religious school three times a week. Hence, the collection of Christmas carols burned into my memory exceeds my repertoire of Chanukah songs, which somehow has not been remedied even after 25 years here. My family was very strict in keeping any kind of Christmas observance out of our house, but I did not grow up with negative feelings about the holiday's music and other trimmings. Sometimes we would take a snowy evening drive to marvel at the illuminated decorations in certain neighborhoods. At some point toward adolescence, I became politically conscious, and hence troubled by the public schools' breaching the wall of separation, but by then my musical memories were fully wired in.
We have a friend who sings in a serious amateur choir based on a nearby kibbutz. We have attended and enjoyed several of their concerts. When we saw a flier for a concert at the Catholic church in the Arab town of Shefaram, we decided it would be interesting to attend. Shefaram is a bustling, sprawling town of about 35,000, 60% Muslim, 25% Christian, 15% Druze, about a thirty minute drive from Shorashim. When we drove into town on Sunday evening, the downtown streets were thronged with people. Shefaram, like other towns with Christian populations, has started holding "Christmas Market," a festival of several days during the week before Christmas, with cultural events, family activities, parades, etc. As we looked for parking (a challenge) and walked to the church, we encountered a pickup truck careening around with several Santa Clauses and some unconnected (and inexplicable) cartoon characters in the back, with loud Arabic Christmas music blaring from loudspeakers. Many houses and shops were decorated with elaborate electric displays, with reindeer a common motif. Many teens and children were in various forms and parts of Santa Claus costumes, often with blinking red LED jewels. And in the courtyard of the church, across from the life-size crèche diorama, and the stand selling mugs and T-shirts imprinted with Christmas motifs, families were waiting in line to photograph their children posing with a couple of young Santa Clauses. Judging from the women's headgear, the crowd was by no means exclusively Christian.
The church was almost full, probably a few hundred people. Medieval church art incongruously surrounded by a modern remodeling job. But the vaults did make for wonderful acoustics for the choir's rich harmonies. The audience appeared to be mostly locals, with the remainder Jewish tourists like us. An enthusiastic priest welcomed us all in two languages, though he couldn't remember just which night of Chanukah it was. For Noel Noel, a member of the church's clergy team with a wonderful, resonant voice joined the choir, to sing one verse in Arabic. (The chorus, in case you've forgotten, goes: "Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel; Born is the king of Israel."). There were a few songs that I found myself starting to sing along, but then realized that that wasn't fair to the people in the row ahead of me…
And so the Christian songs I was forced to learn by virtue of my minority status in the diaspora, I was able to enjoy as expressions of brotherhood and pluralism - important, even - when sung by a Jewish choir in a Christian community in the Jewish state. Context is everything.