Volume 17 • Issue 31 | Dec. 24 - 30, 2004


Talking Point

A Jewish look at the Left and Right Christmas fight

By Ed Gold

I don’t get upset about “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holiday.” The country is divided enough without getting further exercised about a Christian holiday that is also an American folklore holiday.

We might all remember that the classic, “White Christmas,” was written by a secular Jew, Irving Berlin. Are the Christian Rightists going to stop singing that song and are the Political Correctists going to change the name to “White Holiday?”

So a pox on both the rigid Left and the grim orthodox religious Right. While the Left would have us sing “I Wish You a Swinging Holiday” or put up a “Community Tree” that looks just like a Christmas tree, the “Passion” lovers would insist in waving the crucifix during this holiday season so you know where they’re coming from, and who’s in and who’s out.

The battle seems to gain momentum, even to the point in one town where P.C. has stifled “A Christmas Carol” because Tiny Tim says “God bless you, everyone.”

On the other hand, the rightwing religionists are getting very scary, attacking the Anti-Defamation League as un-American, and suggesting that the A.C.L.U., a favorite culprit, has been campaigning against “Merry Christmas,” which it has not done, according to The New York Times.

I grew up in the Bronx a long time ago and there was less vitriol on the subject then than there is now. It was mostly a Jewish neighborhood but at school we sang all the light-hearted, friendly and cuddly Christmas songs and never thought anything was wrong.

We do have complicated traditions in our democracy, and they include compromises and even at times seeming contradictions. God shows up on our coinage and is invoked in prayers in our national Legislature, but we still have a wall in our Constitution to separate church and state. We don’t permit proselytizing in public or governmental places. And we do permit all religions to practice their faiths freely within the confines of their respective religious centers. And for disbelievers, they can go about their business without penalty.

Now, unfortunately, with a president who has conversations with God, most evangelicals and others on the Christian Right have been emboldened and would love to move toward a theocracy. And Christmas is a good focal point.

The truth is we’re a nation with a population heavily skewed toward Christianity, but virtually all faiths are represented. The minority should neither be intimidated nor act stupidly and their rights should be fully recognized. That’s what the wise founders of the nation wanted.

The recent election of course spurred the passionate religionists, many of whom now feel that every Christmas tree should be topped with a cross and every garden should have a creche. Some on the other side are ignoring the long-standing traditional Christmas spirit and want to expunge “Christmas” from the vocabulary, getting the Rightists even more unhinged. The Gibson crowd is getting angrier and is ready to take “merry” out of the holiday.

How did the historic compromise on Christmas manifest itself in my Bronx neighborhood when I was growing up? My family never had a Christmas tree and never gave Christmas presents. But I had Christian friends who loved the holiday and I welcomed invitations to their homes during the holiday season. Frankly, I personally never minded when “Silent Night” was sung, as long as it was sung well. What was wrong with sharing their holiday with friends? Oh yes, they never tried to convert me.

The Rightists are also upset with “commercialism,” as though this was a recent and newly discovered phenomenon. This grimmer view suggests that shopping, gift-giving and simply having family and neighborly fun collides with a religious position. As some put it, they have to “put Christ back into Christmas.”

In fact, they want to put Christ in many more places. The Rightists have already succeeded in obtaining impressive federal funding for so-called “faith-based” organizations that — surprise! — turn out to be all connected to very conservative ministries. They have won the battle in the classroom on sex information limited to abstinence, and they will continue the ongoing effort to make religion a part of the public school experience.

So it really behooves those on the Left, hopefully a minority, who are expending a lot of energy trying to get rid of “Merry Christmas,” to join in the real battle, which is to protect our public institutions from zealots who believe that religion and government share the same bed.

Some may ask, what about Hanukkah? It too is a joyous holiday commemorating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Where there are substantial Jewish populations, the candelabra next to the Christmas tree makes sense. It is not in my opinion an accident that both holidays are celebrated each year about the same time. But, let’s face it, Hanukkah is not a national tradition in the U.S. in the sense that Christmas is, so you can’t expect every community to deal with it in the way they deal with Christmas. Maybe in Israel it might be treated as Christmas is here.

I’ve learned in the past few years to be flexible about Christmas tradition. As I mentioned, I had never given or received presents. But three years ago, my girlfriend, who is Jewish, told me Christmas gift giving was expected where she came from. At first, I balked, but then I decided a friendly tradition deserved respect. I took out my checkbook and did the right thing.



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