Politics & Policy

Politicizing Christmas

Lighten up!

Maybe it’s my upbringing. When my parents got married, my father insisted the kids be raised Jewish. For the record, Mom’s Episcopalian. And, also for the record, you can spare the e-mails about how that means I’m not Jewish because Jewishness is matrilineal.

This didn’t stop me from getting Bar Mitzvah presents (ah, the early ’80s, so many electronic calculators!). And it doesn’t stop me from getting piles of anti-Semitic e-mail, either. Anyway, Momma G said, Fine, we can raise the kids Jewish, but we have to celebrate Christmas.

And so we did. In fact, my parents clipped a headline from a newspaper and taped it to a cardboard Christmas tree ornament they still use every year. It says: “Santa Knows We’re Jewish.”

Don’t laugh too hard. Is it such a stretch to imagine that one fat man and a bunch of vertically challenged workmen, who are capable of delivering a billion tons of toys to every corner of the globe in a single night with a single sled–pulled by flying reindeer–might add a few nice Jewish kids to his list, assuming they’ve been nice and not naughty, of course?

I attended a Reform Jewish day school, and almost everyone I knew had a Christmas tree at home. I don’t remember anyone calling them “Holiday Trees,” but quite a few called them “Hanukkah bushes,” which always struck me as lameness on stilts–like calling a menorah a “Christmas candelabra.”

And keep in mind, this school, Rodeph Sholem, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was virtually a madrassa of knee-jerk Jewish liberalism. Why, a couple years ago they–I kid you not–cancelled Mother’s Day because it was mean to kids with, uh, two daddies. Note, they never canceled Mother’s Day out of consideration for kids whose mothers were, you know, dead. But that’s a battle for another day.

Anyway, I guess it’s because of this background–plus my supposedly troglodytic rightwingness–that I just cannot get worked-up about the supposed non-inclusiveness of Christmastime. I don’t know a single Jew, Muslim, or atheist who’d be even remotely likely to switch teams simply by seeing a Christmas tree. Santa Claus is not going around like the priests in The Exorcist, waving his bell like holy water, shouting, “The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!”

Christmas is a joyous holiday, and joyous people tend not to behave like Torquemada. By my rough calculation, 99.87 percent of Christians who say “Merry Christmas” to people who aren’t Christian do so because they’re trying to be nice. And, by my equally rough calculation, 97.93 percent of people who take real offense when they’re on the receiving end of such Yuletide wishes are trying to be a pain in the–uh, well, they’re trying to be a pain. Let’s put it this way. If you were in Morocco (and a non-Muslim) and someone said to you, “Have a nice Ramadan,” you’d probably say thanks respectfully and leave it at that. But some people are aghast that, here at home, someone might say “Merry Christmas” to them without first making sure they’re Christians.

You might ague this misses the point. The debate isn’t about the private sphere, but the public one. Separation of church and state, the First Amendment, blah, blah. Yeah, I know that argument. Who doesn’t at this point? But I just don’t have a lot of patience for it. This country had established state churches for generations after the First Amendment was ratified. So spare me the argument that its unconstitutional for the local rec center to sport a nativity scene out front and maybe a menorah in the window.

Closer to home, my wife works at the Department of Justice, where not even America’s most feared Christian, John Ashcroft, could successfully keep the Department of Justice from celebrating Gay Pride Month just downstairs from his office. But I’m supposed to buy that it would be outrageous for the DOJ to have a Christmas–not holiday, but Christmas–party one night after work?

Tolerance must be a two-way street. If minorities want the majority to be tolerant of them, minorities in turn need to tolerate at least some of the norms of the majority. Simply because there are more Christians than Jews or Muslims or atheists, doesn’t mean that Christians should always get the shaft. That said, Christians–or at least the politically organized ones–don’t do themselves any favors when they start talking like just another identity-politics group. Christians seem to be complaining more this year than usual about the war on Christmas, even as they are finding more success. Arnold Schwarzenegger renamed the governor’s “holiday tree” a Christmas tree. George Bush is the first president ever to include a quote from scripture on his Christmas card. Besides, once “Merry Christmas” becomes a political statement, everyone loses.

So, everybody lighten up, it’s Christmas!

(c) 2004 Tribune Media Services


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