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Christmas through the eyes of a Jewish child

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There's a lot of talk this year, as in previous ones, of a "war on Christmas." Organizations like Liberty Counsel issue lists of businesses to boycott for not using the word "Christmas" in their holiday advertising (see suggested links below), as if that lack is an attack on Christianity or, more likely, on their belief that America was established as a Christian nation. If that latter notion is the true motive, they're right; it does undermine that idea. This country was founded, in large part, on the principle of religious freedom and no sect has monopoly ownership on this or any other season of the year. Saying "happy holidays" acknowledges this and the increasing use of the phrase demonstrates the growing national awareness of the diversity that freedom has engendered.

Some resent the loss of their religion's de facto monopoly status in the public square and long for a return to the "good old days" of unquestioned supremacy like, say, the 1950s. Others are just bewildered by the change in the national religious dialogue. I can do nothing for the former group, but perhaps I can help the latter by giving them an idea of what it was like growing up as part of a religious minority during those "good old days" of the 1950s.

What follows is a letter I wrote a long time ago to a pen-pal in what I still sometimes think of as the foreign country of Texas:

Dear Suzanne,

Thank you for the Christmas card you sent me. As always, I appreciate your kind thoughts and good wishes. You ask me though, why I limit myself to saying "happy holidays" and never respond to "merry Christmas" in kind. I agree with you that Christmas has evolved into something more than a religious holiday; that there's a lot of joy and fun and good cheer in it... but that's what makes it such an insidious trap for the non-Christian.

I know you don't understand what I'm talking about but perhaps it would help if you could, as the saying goes, walk a mile in my shoes. It would be even better if that mile were walked in the shoes I wore as a child many years ago.

Imagine yourself then, as a small child living in a Jewish home. Outside, all around you, there's a huge, wonderful party going on. There are colorful lights, festive music, delicious things to eat and everywhere a building sense of excitement and anticipation. Houses near yours are brightly decorated; television programs and even commercials all tout the party and keep the excitement at a fever pitch. It is everywhere; it is inescapable, and you are invited to join the fun...

But you can't go. Your parents won't let you. What, you wonder, did you do wrong? "We're Jewish." they say. "It's not our holiday."

How would you feel?

Would you understand at 5 or 8 what the problem really was? I certainly didn't. I just felt left out.

Once, when I was in grade school, I was asked to join the school' s choral group. Everyone told me what a wonderful voice I had and it was a source of pride for me. In those days (the late 1950s) when the holiday season approached, public schools usually put on a Christmas show and mine was no exception. The chorus was taught a full selection of Christmas carols; beautiful, inspiring pieces like O Come All Ye Faithful, Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem and the like. One or two Hanukkah songs like Dreidel and O Hanukkah, O Hanukkah were tossed in too, almost as an afterthought. They had none of the majesty or soaring beauty of the Christmas carols though and I didn't value them much. My father attended the Christmas show and clapped especially loud whenever I appeared on stage, but for some reason my mother was unable to come. That was a disappointment because I was eager to show her what I could do. I thought she'd be very proud of me.

So I planned a surprise for her.

When Christmas break arrived, I gathered some of my little friends and took them down my street to do some Christmas caroling. We rang doorbells and sang in front of all my neighbors; always receiving compliments and, sometimes, cookies. I saved my own house for last. My friends and I arranged ourselves on the porch as we usually did; then I rang the doorbell and we started singing. The door opened and my mother stood there silently until the song was finished. I didn't know why her eyes looked so sad or why she told me to say goodbye to my friends and come inside after only one song. She didn't say anything else. She just shut the door and began helping me off with my coat and muffler. When I looked up, I saw that she was crying. It took me a long time to understand what was wrong when all I'd wanted was to make her proud of me.

I'm an adult now and I understand there's a lot more to Christmas than cookies and presents and fun. For non-Christian parents, there's no war on Christmas, but the holiday itself is a prime combatant in another war; the one for their child's soul. Religion can never be fully divorced from it no matter how secular its celebration has become. In self-defense, American Jews have transformed a minor holiday, Hanukkah, into a major gift-giving celebration just to compete with it. Still, Hanukkah can't really compete with the kind of pervasive influence Christmas has in this country so it shouldn't be hard to understand the kind of siege mentality it sometimes engenders among Jews and other non-Christians; particularly if they're parents.

As I grew up, I learned to cope with its invitation and allure without losing my religious identity. Today, I like watching programs like It's A Wonderful Life and several of the many incarnations of Dicken's A Christmas Carol. I still find much Christmas music more beautiful and uplifting than Hanukkah songs; and I'll readily admit that I prefer Christmas cookies to potato latkes any day...

But I remember the tug-of-war over my Jewish identity and what my parents, like so many others, went through attempting to preserve it.

So I hope, Suzanne, that you can see why I don't let myself get completely into the "Christmas spirit" and say "merry Christmas" instead of "happy holidays." Of course I wish all the best for you and your family during the holiday season and beyond. There is so much we share that the little that divides us seems vanishingly small.

As ever,

Your friend,

Hugh

***

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