The South, The Jews, and Christmas


From Eli Evans’s The Provincials, his half-memoir/half-history portrait of the Southern Jewish experience:

The most dismal moment came during the sixth-grade assembly at the annual presentation of the Christmas pageant, when the choir would recite all the verses of Matthew while the rest of us acted out the drama.  The teacher assigned me, the only Jewish boy in the class, the honor of playing Joseph, the number-one boy’s role, but I knew right away I couldn’t go through with something that close-in to the manger.  I worried for days what to do, not telling my parents because they might pull me out of the play altogether, and call too much attention to me.  Finally, I dredged up the courage to talk to the teacher, and carefully explained that I didn’t think this was such a good role for me and, though I was honored to have been chosen, I would be just as happy as a shepherd boy or as the Star of the East.  No, she thought, they were somewhat religious roles too, and she would try to think of something more secular and less objectionable.  I ended up, typecast no doubt, as the tax collector, the heartless representative of King Herod, pounding the table, demanding oppressive taxes from poor pregnant Mary and dutiful Joseph, thus forcing them to leave town for this historic rendezvous.

I played the role with verve, in Arab headdress made from a bath towel.  At the performance, under brilliant direction, I was so excessive that I got the biggest laughs of the day.

My own school experience, while not as Christmas-immersive as Evans’s, included being excused (with little if any commotion) from singing Christmas carols in 4th grade music class, and having to figure out during the Cub Scout Christmas event that it was ok to march around with the other kids and just smile during “Come, All Ye Faithful,” since nobody was going to notice, anyway.

Obviously, over time, I’ve made my peace with Christmas, choosing the enjoy the secular arm that it’s developed (to the dismay of grinches like Mr. Keillor) and the mutual religious respect (from a distance) that has been the ongoing societal miracle of my lifetime.