by Sam Schreiber
Ten years ago on the sitcom Community, Abed Nadir tells his friends the meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning, and that it can mean whatever we want. A season later, he convinces his best friend and Jehovah’s Witness Troy Barnes to “infiltrate” the holiday in order to destroy it from within. It’s a flimsy ruse to rope Troy and the rest of the study group into joining the school’s glee club, but what’s striking is how both of them embrace the thinnest excuse for loving Christmas, albeit on their own terms.
I can relate.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had what I suspect for secular Jews is a pretty typical relationship with Christmas. Never remotely tempted to become a Christian. Slightly guilty at what even at a young age I understood was the urge to assimilate. Unable to resist that impulse. Not quite sure where that left me, but knowing it left me somewhere.
If you grew up celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday, you might not get what I’m talking about. Even if you aren’t a Biblical literalist, even if you don’t consider yourself a Christian at all, the story of the Christ child and the promise of messianic redemption probably holds some meaning in your subconscious, be it faint or fraught. For you, those stories and those promises are the primary texts from which the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, the Doctor Who and Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, and NORAD tracking Santa all draw their power, if not their meaning.
But for me? They are the primary texts. The meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning. And like science fiction, Christmas is what we point to when we say it. Which is why I say to you today that Jewish Christmas is science fiction.
Despite the title and the fact that its protagonist is literally Santa Claus, the true meaning of Christmas wasn’t even close to being the most important component of my novelette “Christmas at the Hilbert Astoria,” which appears in the November/December 2020 issue of Asimov’s [on sale now]. At least not when I was writing it. At its heart, it’s a detective story, and not this version of Santa’s first rodeo either. Nick is a seasoned, cynical gumshoe if ever there was one. Bigger influences than any particular Christmas story were Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels, Stephen King’s short story “1408,” and Connie Willis’ novella “At the Rialto,” whose narrator is a sort of a mathematical detective in her own right, solving for the true meaning of quantum physics. At least, I think she is. But it’s definitely happening set in a hotel. Maybe.
Put another way, Jewish Christmas is Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek. Cosmopolitan commonality, good will among men and peace on much more than just Earth. “There are always possibilities,” Captain Kirk quotes Mister Spock at the end of The Wrath of Khan. It’s among those possibilities that the science fiction of Christmas lives for us.
Look, it’s quantum physics. I can be forgiven for getting it wrong, or at least partially wrong. Check out “Take a Look at the Five and Ten” in this issue, by the way.
But for Nick, who in some respects bears more of a resemblance to Saint Nicholas of Myra (patron saint of sex workers, thieves, and fences seems about his speed) than he does to the jolly old elf we know and love, the true meaning of Christmas is the schism between the way things should be and the way things are. Between who he should be and who he is, or rather, what he is. Reconciling those differences is no grand triumph for Nick, but a pyrrhic victory. This Christmas is a vision of moral duty, the determination and world-weary humor with which it is carried out, and the horrifying cost of it all.
Of course, my fiction has always skewed a little dark. Things don’t always have to go that way. But no matter how happy or hopeful Jewish Christmas is, that schism is always a piece of the puzzle.
Just look at the music.
Songs about the baby Jesus, stars of Bethlehem, shepherd boys and mighty kings? Not really our forte. We write songs about roasting chestnuts, silver bells, red-nosed reindeers and, of course, Santa. Celebrations of the thing, not the thing itself. The mythos is all well and good, and I’m as big a fan of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar as anyone. But we dream of White Christmases just like the ones we used to know, except we never actually knew them.
But we could.
Put another way, Jewish Christmas is Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek. Cosmopolitan commonality, good will among men and peace on much more than just Earth. “There are always possibilities,” Captain Kirk quotes Mister Spock at the end of The Wrath of Khan. It’s among those possibilities that the science fiction of Christmas lives for us. We imagine Christmas without experiencing it—or at least not the same version of it that others do—because, well, we have to. If Jewish Christmas is anything, it’s the longing for a different world, one which we can absolutely relate to and envision, but that doesn’t quite exist.
But it could.
And I suppose that’s one reason I wrote “Christmas at the Hilbert Astoria,” even if I wasn’t really aware of it at the time. For those of you who don’t know, Hilbert’s Hotel is a thought experiment that asks us to imagine a hotel with an infinite number of rooms, all of them occupied. Is there room for another guest? The answer (which is yes, by the way) boils down to the nature of large and small infinities and it’s an entertaining enough thought experiment. But for me, the next step in that experiment was considering what large and small infinities implied. There’s the infinity of what is. And there’s the infinity of what could be. Jewish Christmas means imagining the possible and, every so often, the impossible. Is it any wonder I chose Santa Claus?
Of course, Nick isn’t merely a curiosity in the world of “Christmas in the Hilbert of Astoria.” His superpower is explicitly tied up with the infinite. It isn’t an accident that he’s the one who the powers that be call in to take on an especially metaphysically challenging case. But for all his reality-bending talents, the sum total of all possible universes is bigger than he is, and he knows it. When the chips are down, he finds himself corned and outmatched. What happens next, well . . . I do actually want you to buy a copy, so that’ll just have to wait for now.
Obviously Jewish science fiction, the Jewish diaspora, and the true meaning of Christmas for Jews—or anyone else whose relationship to Christmas parallels my own—are giant, intimidating topics and a single blog post isn’t going to do them justice. If I’m being completely honest, this is the first piece of writing meant for the public in which I’ve discussed Judaism and Jewishness at all, let alone the relationship between my own Jewishness and my writing. Too many people who are smarter than me, who know more than I do, have done it better, and it makes it hard to say…well, anything on these topics. But here we are, in the final stretch of a short essay and here I am, saying . . . something. Once again, I’m the kid who doesn’t know quite what to do with conflicting theories about what one should feel, never mind what one should say. But I have the chance to put my two shekels in anyway, and I suppose that’s not something one should ever take for granted.