A UNIVERSAL HOLIDAY? WELL, NOT EXACTLY …
Burlington County Times, December 10, 2001
A few years ago, well before Jim Carrey was even considered for the role, I was cast as the Grinch who stole Christmas. The dubious honor was bestowed upon me by an undergraduate education class at LaSalle University. I hadn’t planned on becoming the Grinch. All I was trying to do was teach the students the differences between teaching a particular religion and teaching about religion in the public schools, and what I consider to be the misuse of religious symbols by government officials.
The problem began when I tried to explain to the mostly Catholic students why many non-Christians consider Santa Claus and Christmas trees to be religious not civil symbols of the holiday season. Santa Claus, I explained, is a folkloric depiction of a saint; he brings Christmas gifts to good little girls and boys. If a Christmas tree is a secular symbol, I asked, then why isn’t it called a “holiday” tree or a “friendship” tree? “But,” they argued (I always encourage my students to argue with the professor), “Santa and trees are fun; we can celebrate the religious significance of the holiday without them.”
“But,” I argued back (why teach if you can’t argue back?), “can the symbols be separated from the holiday? Do they exist apart from it? Do they have any meaning at all outside of Christmas?”
After Thanksgiving every year, I remember that class and our debate, because every year it is renewed. I feel myself getting more and more grumpy as I channel surf past commercials for CD compilations of Christmas songs, ads for Christmas gifts, trailers for Christmas movies, suggestions of places to go during Christmas vacation. Let’s be honest here – the majority culture (and religion) in the U.S. is Christian. The first time I played “20 Questions for Kids” with my younger son, I was surprised that he was able to guess the answers to all the questions that had to do with Christmas (and there were quite a few). How many non-Christian kids would be able to answer questions about other religious or cultural celebrations?
As a society increasingly committed, at least in principle, to multicultural expression, we need to decide the proper way to give equal importance to various religious and/or cultural traditions. Is it by decorating shopping centers with alternating banners depicting reindeer, dreidels, and Kwanza candle holders? Is it by adding a Chanukah song to a concert of Christmas carols? Are Jews more apt to shop in a store if a menorah is placed in a window display next to Santa? If the government allows the nightly lighting of the Chanukah menorah on public property, may it then allow a creche to be displayed in the same place?
As a Jew, I am offended by the appearance of religious objects such as menorahs side-by-side with folk symbols such as reindeer. As an American, I am offended by any displays of religious symbols in public places, including the above-mentioned public lighting of the menorah. The inclusion of Jewish symbols, whether they be ritual objects like menorahs or folk ones like dreidels or cultural ones like non-religious Chanukah songs, feel patronizing to me. I can’t help but think that they are thrown out to us as a sop, so we’ll stop complaining about the public celebration of a religious holiday. And if I feel that way, then how must others – Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, for example – who do not have a seasonal holiday in December feel about their exclusion from public American life?
One of the things that bothers me most is that a minor Jewish holiday – one which doesn’t even have its roots in the Hebrew Bible – has become better known and more-widely celebrated by American Jews than the more important ones.
Chanukah and Christmas happen to both fall at roughly the same time of year, although this year Chanukah will be over well before Christmas. They both use light as a symbol. Other than that, there are no historical or religious connections between Chanukah and Christmas (as there are between Passover and Easter).
I’m certainly not blaming non-Jews for the assimilation of Jews into American culture and for the average Jew’s ignorance of or alienation from authentic Jewish cultural and religious expressions. But there is no question that the commercialization of Christmas, decried by so many Christians, too, has led to the commercialization of Chanukah as well.
So, if you’ll forgive my mixing of literary metaphors, I’ll gladly wear my title of Grinch and say, “Bah, humbug.”
And happy holidays, no matter what they are.