The News From Lake Jewbegon

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.

Merry Christmas.

5 Responses to “The News From Lake Jewbegon”

  1. [...] promise I’ll write a blog post here soon.  In the meantime, check out my newest post at Jewschool.  It was just too good a topic to miss. Friday, December 18th 2009, 11:41 [...]


    Yet another post on Jewschool | harpojaeger.com | harpojaeger.com · December 18th, 2009 at 12:47 pm
  2. 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?)

    Wait, did they actually pass this? The article you link to just says they were proposing it.

    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.

    It didn’t take anywhere close to 500 years – the Jewish holidays have already been secularized and commercialized in Israel (though nothing quite on the scale of the American “holiday season”).

    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

    The weird thing is that the right-wing “defenders of Christmas” aren’t trying to keep Christmas pure as a religious experience and only for Christians, but are doing the opposite: they are now embracing the commercial side of the holiday (to celebrate Supply-Side Jesus, perhaps) and seeking to impose it on everyone.


    BZ · December 18th, 2009 at 2:34 pm
  3. Oooh, good call, I had meant to write that they were proposing it. Factual innaccuracy, but the fact that it came up was the point.
    Good point about Israel – this is where the fact that I haven’t been comes in. I touched on this in the post, and I find it a very interesting topic – what does “having a state” do to a culture or religion?


    renaissanceboy · December 18th, 2009 at 5:47 pm
  4. Garrison Keiller should learn about what Christmas was like in the past. In Medieval times people would get very drunk.

    Christians have managed to secularize and commercialize Christmas enough without help from Jews.


    Susan · December 19th, 2009 at 7:39 am
  5. njjewishnews.com/justASC/2009/12/21/garrison-keillor-bigoted-or-tone-deaf/


    ASC · December 21st, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Leave a Reply

If your comment does not immediately appear, do not freak out and repost your message a dozen times. Please note that all new visitors must have their first comment approved by the editor, and you must provide a legitimate e-mail address and use the same username for the system to "remember" you. The editor maintains the right to refuse comments deemed inappropriate or unhelpful. Users who repeatedly delve into ad hominem attacks or other troll-like behavior will be banned.

Trackback (Right-click & 'Copy Link...') | Comments RSS

"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik