Here it is only just past Halloween, and already the cheering section for Christmas is getting in gear. A friend posted on Facebook that she wished Christmas music was all year long.
That touched a nerve for me. I was raised in super-multicultural NYC, but when I moved to Western Massachusetts in 1981, I felt intensely isolated in a community that at that time felt almost entirely white and Christian.
My birthday happens to fall on Christmas Eve. I will never forget going out into the streets that year trying to find a place where my wife (girlfriend, at the time) and I could eat out on my birthday. I think we ended up at a Christmas dinner for the homeless and downtrodden because no restaurants were open. It was a bitterly cold, windy evening and there had been snow a day or two before, which was already dirty and blowing around. The streets were almost deserted, except for someone driving around in a pickup truck shouting “Merry Christmas” through a megaphone when she saw one of the rare pedestrians. I felt like I’d moved to a foreign planet.
A few months later, we got involved with a group of progressive Jews that among other things, took on the cultural identity problem. Two years in a row, we organized a Jewish Cultural Festival that created a lot more visibility for us. I also started freelancing for the local paper, and made it a point to cover a number of stories of Jewish interest. Also, over time, the community became more diverse. And the pressure gradually eased.
But still, as late as 1988, I felt a need to write an op-ed that got published in several newspapers around the country over the next few years. Our local paper ran it first, under the headline, “When Christmas Becomes Oppressive.” Here’s are a few excerpts (with the then-current spellings):
Imagine for a moment that Ramadan, the Moslem holy month, is the major cultural holiday of the United States. For three months before the holiday, every radio station plays Ramadan music; the newspapers and TV are full of special Ramadan sales; and all over town are pictures and models of the Prophet Mohammed rising up to heaven.
A mosque at night. Photo by Ramzi Hashisho, freeimages.com
As a non-Moslem, you are offended by all this. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Ramadan is so much a part of our culture that even the most religious symbols associated with it have become secular. Therefore it is not a violation of church and state separation to display them even in front of government buildings…
You’ve just experienced a taste of how non-Christians experience Christmas. Christmas has been transformed from a religious holiday into a mass celebration of both commercialism and Christianity. It is ever-present, unavoidable, and total.
And the message it gives to others is, “You don’t fit in. you’re an outsider”…
Ultimately, [Chanukah] decorations are tokenism. They say, “You don’t have to be Christian to participate in this orgy of buying.”
Mind you, I’m not suggesting that anyone abandon Christmas. I have been to many of my friends’ Christmas parties and enjoyed them. But these gatherings are celebrations of a personal religious holiday in a private home. I enjoy their traditions, just as I enjoy sharing my own culture with non-Jewish friends on “Rosh Hashana or Passover. And that’s how Christmas should be celebrated—in homes and churches, not as “secular” symbols thrown into the faces of nonbelievers.
29 years later, I still think it’s great when Christians celebrate Christmas. I attend the neighborhood Christmas party every year unless I’m traveling, and I happily go to Christmas events. What I object to is the assumption that everyone is Christian, that this is a universal holiday, and that other cultures don’t count (or are tokenized with e.g. a menorah in a store window along with a dozen or more Christmas symbols). Thus, even in 2017, when I saw my friend’s post, I felt I had to respond with this comment:
Not to be the Grinch here, but as a non-Christian living in a largely Christian community, I feel very marginalized at this time of year and don’t need it to start any earlier then it does. I get annoyed when I hear Christmas music before Thanksgiving is over. I would have a higher tolerance if more Christmas music was less sappy and commercialized. Or if there were more acknowledgement of the many non-Christian holidays this time of year, including the rather minor but 8 day long holiday of Hanukkah that I celebrate. I do get happy when I hear a good old carol done in an authentic and acoustic rendition, or silly ones like Blue Christmas. But I could totally live my life happily without ever hearing Jingle Bell Rock or some of the really schmaltzy Santa stuff.
Interestingly, I haven’t felt oppressed by Christmas when I’ve spent the season in overtly Christian Latin America. Maybe some of the reason is that the music is better. Instead of sappy commercialized crap, the airwaves a full of carols and church melodies that are pleasant to the ear.
And maybe it’s also that Christianity is the official religion in those countries, and I get to visit Christianity on its own turf. But if the US celebrates the separation of church and state, why is it OK to have creches on courthouse lawns? How does that do anything other than establish a connection between Christianity and government? I raised that point in my 1988 article, and have seen nothing to change my mind.
These days, I as a Jew can walk down the streets and see many acknowledgements of Chanukah (a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, despite its eight-day run—made important in the secular world only by its proximity to Christmas and its adoption of the custom of giving gifts). Yet, obviously, I still feel like an isolated minority. Imagine, then, how it feels to be Muslim, or Wiccan, or celebrate Kwanzaa. After all these years, the US still has to do a much better job of acknowledging and celebrating its pluralism. As militant, violent white separatists become emboldened by a president who openly ran a hate campaign, this is more urgent than ever.