Christmas and I have had a complicated relationship.
When I was in kindergarten, my public school class took a trip to visit a mall Santa; this is the only time small children are encouraged by authority figures to sit on the laps of strange men. Santa sensed my discomfort (I was probably not a particularly stoic child) and inquired as to my hesitation. I informed him that I was Jewish – something you’d think Santa would know! – and he replied that Santa was for all children. Even at five years of age, I wasn’t buying it but at that age, you can’t fight city hall, let alone the North Pole.
When I was in fourth grade, my classroom had a Christmas tree. I inquired about counter-balancing that with a menorah, only to be informed that a menorah is not allowed in public schools because it’s a religious symbol but that dreidels are okay. Seems fair to me: a full-size evergreen tree decked out in tinsel and ornaments counter-balanced by a handful of inch-high plastic tops.
In between those two incidents, I was chastised by the music teacher (Mr. DeFranco, with whom I had a very good relationship) for failure to participate in the singing of Silent Night. “Everybody else sang the dreidel song!” he informed me. (Again with the dreidels!) Being seven years old, I lacked the verbal skill necessary to point out the difference in theological import of my classmates claiming to have fashioned a spinning top out of clay versus me singing a song that espouses the doctrine of virgin birth.
Given these childhood anecdotes, one might suspect that my relationship with Christmas is contentious. It actually isn’t. In the words of Lauren Cooper, a character played by British comedienne Catherine Tate, “I ain’t even bovvered.” (“Bovvered” is “bothered,” rendered with a pair of Vs because of the character’s accent. “Bovvered” was Britain’s Word of the Year in 2006, so it is perhaps sooner recognized in the UK than here in the colonies.)
Christmas is simply a part of our culture. Religious Christians, non-observant Christians, even totally secular Americans of whatever faith (or no faith) may recognize the day in one way or another, whether that means attending Mass, exchanging gifts, or simply spending time with their families. And, as much as we may disagree with it, most of us probably know non-observant Jews who observe the occasion in one way or another, as they might Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. (The former two are religious holidays that have lost that significance in many people’s minds; the latter two are American holidays with no religious significance, historical or otherwise. These are not equivalent in halacha; follow the links for more information.)
This point was never made more clear to me than a few years ago, when I chaperoned a group of teens to a conference of leaders from all the national Jewish youth groups – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and more. I was in the hotel’s sundries shop, buying sundry things, when the cashier struck up a conversation with one of the teens (not one of my group):
“So all you kids are Jewish?”
“When do you celebrate Christmas?”
Without missing a beat, he quipped, “December 26.”
The cashier thought about this really hard for a second and then replied, “I’m okay with that. Differences are good.”
This woman took for granted that a hotel full of Jewish teens celebrate Christmas because, in her experience, everyone celebrates Christmas. The thought that Jews might celebrate it a day later was radical and exotic. (Let’s not tell her that a number of Christian denominations observe the holiday in January.) In any event, I’m not bovvered.
Should an Israeli Christian, Muslim or Druze be bovvered that the bus signs there light up “Happy Chanukah?” Of course not; it’s a Jewish country. Similarly, the US is a Christian country, de facto if not de jure. It’s like living in an “Italian” neighborhood. It’s not “officially” Italian by virtue of being part of Italy, because it isn’t. It’s unofficially Italian by virtue of the preponderance of Italian-Americans who live there. Similarly, the US is for all practical purposes a Christian country by virtue of the overwhelming majority of the population.
I support this idea by citing the US Constitution. No, not the Establishment Clause; that guarantees us the free exercise of religion. I get it from the final paragraph of the Constitution itself, which reads, “done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven….” The first amendment may guarantee Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others the right to practice our faiths – or no faith at all – but the founding fathers were still the kind of men who looked at 1787 as “the Year of our Lord.” There’s a reason that Christmas is a national holiday and Yom Kippur isn’t. Like I said before, you can’t fight city hall and you can’t fight the North Pole. Well, you sure as heck can’t fight Bethlehem – nor do I want to.
The past few years have seen tension between the politically-correct “happy holidays” crowd and the conservative “there’s a war on Christmas” crowd. We all heard the flap that Starbucks’ annual red cups weren’t “Christmassy” enough – this despite the fact that Starbucks sells an advent calendar, makes a special Christmas blend, and recognizes the occasion in a number of other ways. More recently, a New Jersey politician nearly resigned because her township announced a “Christmas tree lighting” as opposed to a more inclusive “holiday tree lighting.” While I appreciate her having us non-Christians in mind, calling it a “holiday tree lighting” really doesn’t make it any more inclusive. You might as well call it what it is. It’s okay. Am I bovvered?
The radio stations increase their Christmas playlists in the weeks leading up to the holiday; I expect that. The streets are decorated with colored lights; that’s all well and good. Starbucks could decorate their cups with a nativity scene for all I care; it might not be good business but it wouldn’t faze me. And people wish me “merry Christmas” all the time. I ain’t even bovvered.
The majority has rights too. If I want others to respect my right to an eiruv, shechitah, and milah, there’s no reason I should object to Santa on the Coke bottles or a brightly-decorated tree in the public square. I certainly don’t object to a month of sales!
Of course, there’s no mail on Christmas. That bovvers me a little…
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
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