Two sharply contrasting views of the secularization of Christmas are presented by Garrison Keillor, writer and stand-up poet (that’s the only way I can think of to really describe the News from Lake Woebegon) extraordinaire, and Michael Feinstein, a Jewish musician who got involved in a tangle about what constitutes a “Jewish” celebration of Christmas.
It’s been a tumultuous Egg Foo Yung season thus far. Between the House of Representatives taking time from its busy schedule (and, as Steve Benen points out, thus facilitating a gigantic Boehner contradiction [say that one out loud!]) to pass a resolution in support of Christmas (proper political response: WTF?), and the Daily Show’s brilliant exposé of a dastardly attempt by the Obama White House to encourage religious pluralism and (gasp) découpage, the pro-Santa coalition has certainly put up quite a fuss about the War on Christmas. For G()d’s sake, they don’t put up this much fuss about the War on Terror, or the War on Drugs, or the War on Allowing The Senate to Function Normally, all of which claim far more casualties, but nonetheless, some interesting content has come out of the Christmas-battles from both sides.
Keillor’s commentary is a notch above the usual xenophobic rants that accompany the defense of Christmas (a phrase almost as vague as Family Values). Calling upon his extraordinary ability to take a complex, subtle, and not-easily-reconciled situation, and reduce all involved to hysterics and/or tears with the sheer power of his snarkiness (“Did one of our guys write ‘Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah’? No, we didn’t.”), he also makes some very good points from an intellectual standpoint: that the obsession with the Perfect Christmas (largely, but not entirely, a commercial phenomenon) has had several unexpected and bad results:
- that Christmas has become secularized, losing its religious meaning
- that non-Christians now diminish from the observance of “legitimate” Christians
- that Silent Night has been rewritten so it doesn’t talk about G=d as much (this one’s a real shame, because that’s a beautiful song).
The secularization of Christmas is not new. From a practical standpoint, tt’s hard for me as a Jew to completely empathize, because there really isn’t an equivalent situation for me. Yes, I went through the “Why does everyone make such a big deal of Hannukah? It’s not even important!” phase, but it’s really not the same. Maybe if Simchat Torah got the Christmas treatment, we’d have a comparable situation.
Another thing that might help would be living in Israel. I’ve never been in the majority as a Jew (although I have no illusions about my majority in racial terms [I'm an upper-middle class white guy from the Northeast, just about as elite as it gets], and, okay, okay, I’ll say it; PRIVILEGE [dlevy is applauding in the wings]), and until recently, Jews hadn’t been in the majority at all anywhere for thousands of years. Christianity has been mainstream in the West for so long that something like this was bound to evolve, and I’d predict that if the State of Israel is still around in five hundred years, something similar will be happening to Judaism.
But to the question of whether the secularization of Christmas is “okay”, Feinstein makes the perfect argument: that “…the spirit of the holiday is universal”. Saying that Christians, or, as some of the more crazy defenders-of-Christmas-as-a-purely-right-wing-religious-experience would say, only “real” Christians (read: not pro-choicers, Obama-Socialists, or anyone who favors any kind of government spending [read: red scum]), should be allowed to celebrate the Christmas spirit that those same people are so desperate to define and keep pure, is like saying that only men can wear a tallit. We live in a constitutionally-enforced religiously free society, and that means that we’re also free to do what, by someone else’s definition, constitutes bastardizing religion as much as we want, whether it’s “their” religion we’re “bastardizing” or “our own”.
And that’s important. Yes, this country was founded by Christians. White male landowning Christians (PRIVILEGE PRIVILEGE PRIVILEGE. I said it again!). But in my opinion, the Bill of Rights is designed to keep religious groups from becoming so insular that they weaken society’s ability to function cohesively. If all we had were distinct and warring religious factions, we’d have to abandon representative democracy, dismantle the federal government, and let the South secede again (and if they try, this time I say let ‘em go). Which, realistically, is what a lot of the Christmas-defenders would like. We shouldn’t give it to them. Feinstein offers an eloquent argument for what is really deserving of celebration: the commonalities between us.
So yes, let’s maintain a healthy respect for others’ traditions. I’m not about to affirm that Christ is my lord and savior any more than I expected the a cappella groups performing at Brown Hillel’s Hannukah Bash to daven with us on Friday night; we need to give people their religious space, and take our own when necessary. At the same time, though, I have for many years gone caroling with Christian friends, and attended the Candlelight service at the West Cummington Congregational Church, one of my favorite religious events year-round. One year, I approached the minister there after the service, and told him that as an observant Jew, his sermons were deeply moving. And you know what he did? He bowed, and thanked me for coming.
Take Keillor’s biting wit with a couple grains of salt (and some challah), and listen to Feinstein when he says that it’s time to stop enforcing differences, and start celebrating commonalities. Then, Jesus willing, we’ll have a new year with a few less of the former, and a few more of the latter.