It’s happening again; they’re trying to take away Christmas. I know this for sure because I was listening to conservative talk radio (which in Boston is redundant, since there is no liberal talk radio), and the radio host went on and on about how you can’t sing Christmas carols in public schools or take class field trips to Santa Clause movies. Even worse, they’re removing nativity scenes from public squares, taking crosses off of courthouses, and doing all sorts of other horrible things. The “they” to whom the radio hosts refer are the liberals.
Conservative talk radio hosts come in different flavors. One of my all-time favorites was Barry Farber of New York City who would read "The Night Before Christmas" in Yiddish on Christmas Eve. A conservative, southern-born Jewish history buff well versed in 25 languages, Farber thrived on provocative, thought-provoking behavior (like reading "The Night Before Christmas" in Yiddish). Yiddish was the common dialect of East European Jewry during centuries of oppression. European born grandparents of American Jews from my generation were subjected to pogroms (organized riots) in their shtetles (villages) especially around Christian holidays; many Jews were beaten and killed. By choosing to read a Christmas story in a Jewish language spoken during a time of great oppression, Farber was certainly not advocating that his Jewish listeners celebrate Christmas but rather reminding them that they no longer had to fear it.
Still, America is imperfect, and the Jewish experience here, like that of many immigrants, includes a history of discrimination. In my parents’ generation, Jews were restricted from entering Ivy League schools, corporations, country clubs, hotels, and housing in non-Jewish neighborhoods. Not fun at all. However, all of that pales in comparison to the Jewish experience in Europe, which includes centuries of mass expulsions, crusades, inquisition, ghettos, blood libels, and pogroms, all culminating but not ending with the Holocaust. Most of those discriminations in America have been overcome, so much that Jews have reached high governmental positions and become CEOs and presidents of the same universities and corporations which used to discriminate against them.
Indeed, Farber once prefaced his annual reading of the Christmas classic in Yiddish by remarking that in America Jews and Christians have the best relations ever. Jews familiar with their own history in Europe would be hard pressed to disagree. Today, positive Jewish-Christian relations in America have gone way beyond the absence of rancor and discrimination. There is unprecedented sharing, learning, and appreciation for each other’s respective traditions.
All this brings me back to the “war” on Christmas which, according to the talk show hosts, is being waged by the bad liberals to prevent others from celebrating Christmas to its fullest. The sage philosopher Groucho Marks once quipped, “Who do you believe, me or your eyes?” Good question. My eyes are hurting. Where are the people who can’t celebrate Christmas?
From Thanksgiving onward, we are inundated with Christmas: radio stations play Christmas music constantly, some 24 hours a day; television stations highlight Christmas episodes or replay traditional Christmas shows and movies; Christmas lights are everywhere; children wear Santa Clause hats; adults wear Christmas-colored clothes; people talk about what they will do for Christmas; and everyone wishes everyone a “Merry Christmas” as if it’s a universal holiday that nobody could possibly find even the least bit foreign or contrary to personal practice.
Talk show hosts complain that the politically-correct crowd discourages “us” from indiscriminately wishing “Merry Christmas” to strangers who might be Jew, Muslim, or otherwise non-Christian. I wouldn’t exactly call this a “war” on Christmas. Perhaps the talk radio hosts are confusing the concept of “war” with the concept of using common sense.
The same critics lament how you can’t sing Christmas carols in school anymore -- interesting that they don’t lament how no one ever sang non-Christian holiday melodies except for the token Chanukah songs included in the annual Christmas concerts in a misinformed attempt at ecumenicalism. Truth be told, teaching and celebrating one of the least important Jewish holidays along with one of the most important Christian holidays is not exactly being ecumenical.
Personally, I love Christmas songs and winter holiday type songs, and I’m irrationally proud that so many were written or co-written by Jews. Which ones, you might ask? The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire), Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Santa Baby, Holly Jolly Christmas, I'll Be Home for Christmas, Silver Bells, It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, Sleigh Ride (Jewish lyricist), Silver Bells (Jewish lyricist), Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!, There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and White Christmas. Aha! Disallowing Christmas songs in the public schools isn’t discrimination against Christians, it’s discrimination against Jewish composers!
On a more serious level (although it really is hard to be serious about this topic), the reason why Americans have more freedom of religion than other countries is precisely because the constitutional separation of Church and State guarantees that no religion will have undue preference over any other. Jews who have many times experienced real wars on their religion should be forgiven for thinking there’s something a little nuts about the cries of a “war” on Christmas.
But the radio hosts are right that there is a real push against Christmas.
They’re just wrong about the culprits (overzealous conservative talk radio hosts often get confused). It’s not the liberals but rather people who gain commercially who have insidiously converted Christmas into nothing more than the culmination of a national shopping month. Today, the term “Merry Christmas” has become a euphemism for “have a prosperous shopping season” or, worse, “please buy my products.” As a result, many children now see Christmas as little more than a day to receive presents.
Of course, all this is fine for people who don’t really care about the holiday’s religious meaning and simply enjoy exchanging gifts. Freedom of religion includes the freedom from religion. As Julia Child would say about an overcooked Bœuf Bourguignon, C’est la vie! On the other hand, since I have had the good fortune to be friends with Christians who do take their religion seriously, I appreciate their difficulty in celebrating the birth of Jesus when it seems everyone else is pushing them to celebrate shopping.
It probably doesn’t help when conservative talk radio hosts use Christmas to boost their own ratings by manipulating listeners' wrath against a non-existent attack on the holiday that they pretend to care so much about.