At some point, people started referring to the nebulous stretch of time between the end of November and early January as “the holidays.”
Dwelling in the spacious interior of that period is a number of celebrations that get top billing in the United States: Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, and the king of them all: Christmas. These months are marked by festive lights, hokey television specials, and inflatable representations of characters and iconography associated with the season.
But for plenty of people in Cambridge and Somerville, the period between late November and early December doesn’t bear any special meaning. For them, Dec. 25 is Dec. 25 and nothing more.
For Jewish people, the “holidays” usually refer to the time around Rosh Hashanah—a celebration of the new year according to the Jewish calendar—and Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and prayer that is considered the most important and holiest holiday.
Yom Kippur is trailed by another string of holidays, starting with Sukkot and followed by Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
Linda Kasten, a biostatician who lives and works in Cambridge, grew up in a community with only a small Jewish population, and can take some pleasure in the decorations and lights thrown up in the winter time. But she still takes issue with the use of the term “holidays,” because in many ways, it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that many of the most important holidays observed by Jews have passed by the time December rolls around.
“You can say the Christmas season. That’s what it should be,” she says. “And many Jews would prefer people call things a ‘Christmas party’ instead of a ‘holiday party.’”
Brian Eisenstein, also of Cambridge, is in a similar boat. At first, he liked the use of the term “holidays” and the greeting “happy holidays.” But then he started to realize it implied the season was equally important for everyone—something he doesn’t believe is true.
Eisenstein says that as far prominence goes, Hanukkah is more comparable to Fat Tuesday in the Christian tradition than it is to Christmas. He says that Passover and the fall holidays are more important for him and other practicing Jews.
He also feels as if using the greeting was “imposing something” on others. His solution is to offer holiday-specific greetings only if he knows what, if anything, someone is celebrating during the season.
And unlike Kasten, Eisenstein doesn’t really get much out of the displays.
“I just basically grumble, grumble, grumble and move on,” he says.
Cynthia Graber, a journalist and the host of the podcast Gastropod, lives in Somerville. Graber, who is Jewish, says she takes issue with how overexposed and oversaturated Christmas can be.
“I don’t mind Christmas happening on Christmas. It’s a holiday. People should enjoy their holiday,” she says. “I just mind it taking three months.”
She also notes that she tends to steer clear of her dentist in Cambridge during December to escape an endless barrage of Christmas carols.
“That said, I think one that of the things I love about [Somerville] is that it is so diverse,” she says. “And there’s—to me—a real acceptance of how wonderful that diversity is. So I think I could easily see it here, more than in other places that I’ve traveled.”
Graber thinks it’s unlikely people will ever recognize that Christmas is a holiday with religious roots that some people like herself will simply never want to participate in. But she did say that if people anywhere were to get that, it would be in Somerville.
Mohammed Anwar, a car dealership employee who lives in Cambridge, is Muslim. He says that he does not celebrate Christmas, but that a holiday is any day that is spent with one’s family.
“So to me, a holiday—any holiday—is a day that you spend time with your family, your community,” Anwar says. “A holiday is a day where you all sit together and enjoy [yourselves]. Any day you do that is a holiday, regardless of how you do that.”
Anwar says that Christmas represents another opportunity for his family members to reunite outside of the summer, when students are out of school, and important Muslim holidays like Ramadan and Eid Al-Adha.
Anwar says Cambridge does a good job of recognizing religious holidays and observances equally.
Kasten says the same, and that she believes the city has become more inclusive since she first moved here 35 years ago.
Cambridge and Somerville both have winter breaks scheduled around the end of December for school. In the 2019-2020 school year, Cambridge students had Oct. 9 off for Yom Kippur. Meanwhile, the Somerville school calendar indicated that staff members would “do their best” not to schedule “one-time events, field trips, athletic competitions, auditions, tests, [and] quizzes” for those days, and that “long-term assignments” would not be due on those days.
According to a statement from Somerville, the city hosts both a Christmas tree lighting and a Menorah lighting, as well as tours focused on secular light displays.
“Throughout the year, we try to be mindful of major religious holidays and avoid scheduling meetings or events on those days,” the statement says. “We are also always open to suggestions from the community for appropriate ways to publicly celebrate additional holidays.”
This story appears in the Nov/Dec print issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
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