Monday, December 21, 2009

Talk Radio and Christmas
by David Gilfix

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.

13 comments:

Natasha said...

Cute, David, and thanks. For Christians, Easter is a much more important holiday than Xmas. And wasn't Easter the scariest Xn holiday for Jews fearing pogroms in Eastern Europe?

Have you read Garrison Keillor's rant on Salon.com about your topic? You should!

Happy Fifth of Tevet,

Natasha

Mik-Mik said...

David,
Great piece.I wish you all are in NY with us. I am conducting a Christmas Cantata on Dec. 24 in our small church in Richmond Hill, Queens. We are doing Bizet's Te Deum, and many other traditional American and Philippine Christmas music. I am proud to say that at the principal violist of the COS Alumni Chamber Orchestra is Jeremy Cushman for this concert. Yes, he is Jewish and he loves good music including beautiful Christmas songs. I know you know that I am a a lover of folk songs. Yiddish and Jewish folk songs have a special room in my heart.
In case you may be here in the area,or you may have friends who love Christmas music,the church is:
Pilgrim Congregational Church * 102-35 89th Ave, Richmond Hill NY, 11418.Concert starts at 6 PM

ssancetta said...

"...a misinformed attempt at ecumenicalism" - WOW! I always felt there was something off about insisting on giant menorahs, cozying up to the Christmas decorations, in town squares. It would be pretty awesome if we saw, instead, symbols of freedom and gratitude in front of the courthouse during Passover.

Emily said...

Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la la , la!

It seems the media has perpetuated the materialistic voice of Christmas:

Imagine if the media cared more about the holiday's true meaning than their own financial gain!

Mark said...

Another excellent, insightful article.

Andrew said...

Another great piece of writing, David. You raise some very interesting points about sensitive matters that most people are too uncomfortable to address during the holiday season. Your writing is clever and refreshing. I knew those talk show hosts were off base!

Merry Christmas!

Andrew

Pat said...

David,

Terrific article--concise and lucid. It's a tad depressing how little the babble radio barkers care about analyzing their rants against the facts, but it's refreshing to read pieces like yours that underscore the insubstantial underpinnings of their commentaries. H.L. Menchken's quote on politics could also apply to conservative talk radio: "The whole aim of practical politics [read 'babble radio'] is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

Marlene said...

Talk radio! Aghhhaaa -- that's a cry of pain. Can you imagine having your work be stirring up anger and hatred daily? And to do so, one must be willfully stupid and ignorant of basic facts and history. There's evidence that Christmas came into being as a deliberate attempt to overshadow the Roman celebration Saturnalia, and other "pagan" celebrations taking place around the winter solstice. Later, the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas at all -- too much excess for them! Christmas celebrations really got kicked off in Victorian times, during the Rise of the Bourgeoisie, as we use to say in the Sixties -- so it necessarily is interwoven with Capitalism and consumerism.

John Gitelman said...

Great post, David. I've found myself, a Jew, actively wishing people a Merry Christmas this holiday season. It feels more respectful than Happy Holidays. Talk Radio might find a way to criticize my reverse-liberal thinking. You can't win with them, so don't bother trying. They are just mean people.

Anyhow, the whole meaning of Christmas is distorted and corrupt beyond hope. Sorry to say that we can find some of the sources of this decay in values and meaning to the retailing (and songwriting) Jews who created this commercial shopping holiday long time ago. Not to blame the Jews for everything, but to recognize that we have been just as involved as others. Christmas is cultural and everyone plays a role in it. You can expect more fragmentation and distortion of the holidays as time goes by.

Great thought provoking post.

David Gilfix said...

John,

Thanks for your very interesting comments.

I think you might be conflating acts committed by Jews with Jewish acts when you say that “we [Jews] have been as involved as others” in this “decay of values.” It sounds humble and fair at first glance, but I contend it’s fundamentally flawed. What if someone says “Since many Christians have committed violent crimes, we [Christians] have been as involved as others in causing violence in America”? Is that fair? If violent crimes are a reflection of the perpetrators’ Christian values or Christian learning, then the comment would make sense. Otherwise, and in most cases, the perpetrators’ Christianity is superfluous to their crimes, and therefore Christians should bear no collective guilt.

Similarly, the few Jewish retailers who profit from Christmas have not acted as Jews nor do their actions reflect Jewish teaching. As a result, Jews as a group should bear no responsibility. I also think that your comment about "the retailing (and songwriting) Jews who created this commercial shopping holiday long time ago" grossly overestimates the influence of Jews. Most of the merchants, advertisers, and marketing people throughout history have been non-Jews (Jews comprise less than 3% of the US and 0.3% of the world population).

Bottom line, the “we” in your statement is wrong. For that matter, Christians are not responsible either, as most of the commercial hype of Christmas does not reflect Christian values. In my article, I was very careful not to blame any particular religious denomination but rather use the religiously neutral term, “those who gain commercially.”

Lastly, would you say “L’Shanah Tovah” to everyone you saw during the Jewish new year, or would you try to reserve that greeting for Jews? I’m sure you would answer the latter because wishing “L’Shanah Tovah” to Christians implies that they observe the same holiday as you, which we know isn’t so. Further, people’s religious identities are defined not only by what they observe but by what they choose not to observe -- and many if not most Jews, Moslems and other non-Christians choose not to celebrate Christmas). Saying “Merry Christmas” to them is about as incongruous as feeding your dog catnip. Why not refrain from saying “Merry Christmas” to the masses and reserve it only for people that you know actually celebrate Christmas?

Anyway, I found your comment fascinating. It touches upon some important issues that I didn’t expect to address. As you can see, you have provoked me to do a bit of thinking and I hope you don't mind my presenting a different perspective.

agnosticcynic said...

Mr. Gilfix has been able to put into words what many of "us" have felt for years, but were never able to pinpoint, or were so wearied by the onslaught of endless holiday seasons, that we had no energy left to pursue the matter. I was raised in a Christian-oriented family and geographic region, but never truly understood what Christianity was based upon. I knew that Christmas was a celebration of the birth of Jesus (and, only as adult, learned that December 25 was chosen as the celebrated birth date by the Romans, as the true birth date had never been verified, and December 25 conveniently fit into the calendar alongside other established holidays), and that Easter was a celebration of his alleged resurrection, but everything else was a great void. (I suppose that if I had not spent a significant amount of time during Sunday school out in the hallway on a chair, for disruptive behavior in the classroom, that the void might have been somewhat less, but tales of a talking snake and a burning bush were better left for the times of psychedelic experimentation that would follow a few years later.) In the town where I grew up, there was one Jewish family, the Mandels, who lived just down the street from us. The rest of us had absolutely no understanding of Judiasm, and we flocked to the house that celebrated some sort of holiday around the time of Christmas, but with no Christmas tree, wanting to witness this fact firsthand. The Mandel kids tried their best to explain, but we felt they must be duping us... how could anyone celebrate a holiday in December without a Christmas tree? This all leads me to finally exposing the truth of Christmas nowadays, as experienced by many self-proclaimed Christians, which is that it has meandered so far away from its roots, along with Christianity itself in many ways, that it has allowed itself to become a season of consumption, and perhaps simply a distraction from the things in life that are challenges to all of us. Almost all of the Jews I know not only embrace their religion, but they truly understand it, and they study it. None have ever slighted me, or spoken down to me, because I am not Jewish. On the other hand, many (not all) of the Christians that I know who claim to embrace their religion, do slight me, or speak down to me, for not doing as they do... and, as far as I can tell, often "study" their religion by listening to talk radio, and entrusting their minds, and often their money, to evangelicals selling their goods on television. Talk radio nation has fostered an extreme sense of exclusivity, and has led many who might otherwise label themselves as Christians, to dissociate themselves from such a prejudiced pack of hatemongers. So, is it really little surprise that Christmas has morphed into its current form, and that most of us are simply fed up with it?

Anonymous said...

David,

I made it a point to buy cards which specifically spelled out "Christmas" wishes, rather than more generic options.

Though the right-wing rants of the faux war on Christmas are, of course, attempts to fuel the base without justification, I do want to acknowledge the importance of the Holiday.

David Gilfix said...

Dear Anonymous,

I agree! When you're greeting someone who celebrates Christmas it's downright silly to write or say "Happy Holidays" when what you mean is "Merry Christmas"!