The Christmas Kerfuffle Redux
It's that time of year again. Time to revisit my 2005 SFGate column on the annual Christmas kerfuffle, that is. With this column (reprinted below), I tried to provide a Jewish, albeit secular, perspective on the ongoing and, in my opinion, needless controversy over Christmas. And last year, I expanded on the subject with a post titled, "Are Jews Oppressed by Christmas?" My answer was a resounding, "No!" Read on...
The Christmas Kerfuffle
December 20, 2005
Upon leaving a San Francisco shop last week, I wished the clerk a cheery "Merry Christmas," only to be met with a surly "Happy Holidays" in return. With that simple exchange, our positions at opposite ends of the political spectrum were revealed.
The celebration of Christmas has indeed been overshadowed by politics in recent years, to the point where every greeting is pregnant with meaning. And even non Christians are swept up in the Christmas kerfuffle.
As a member of the Jewish faith, I've never once felt intimidated, bothered or offended by Christmas. In fact, I grew up celebrating Christmas and still do to this day. Not the religious aspects, but rather the festive trappings of the holiday. I also light the menorah candles each year to mark Hanukkah. While this might earn me the disapproval of traditionalists on both sides of the fence, I confess it simply to illustrate that one holiday need not endanger another.
Yet the political battle over Christmas rages on. Conservatives are upset over what has been dubbed the "war on Christmas," while liberals accuse them of overreacting to what is essentially a non-event. But who's right?
Skeptics of the "war on Christmas" narrative often point out that the trappings of Christmas are everywhere. The commercialization of Christmas has led to an onslaught of retail madness in recent years; the evidence is all around us. But the religious underpinnings of Christmas (the birth of Jesus Christ), not to mention the actual name of the holiday itself, are at risk of disappearing from the public sphere.
All across the country, city halls, chain stores, and public squares are erecting "holiday trees" in lieu of Christmas trees. Nativity scenes are being banned in town squares, public buildings and even some malls. The singing of Christmas carols such as "Silent Night" in public schools and caroling in public parks and public housing are becoming rarities. Court cases brought by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have taken the clause that never appeared in the constitution to ridiculous levels -- and chipping away at Christmas is just one of the results.
The Wages of Diversity
The retail world has been the focus of much anti-Christmas activity. While profiting from the holiday, many stores seem to feel that specifying Christmas threatens the "inclusiveness" to which they seem to be pledged. A trip to Macy's, Nordstrom, Sears or just about any other department store these days will almost always result in the ubiquitous "Happy Holidays" greeting from employees as you pass through the door.
Target in particular has taken a lot of heat for allegedly eliminating the word "Christmas" from its stores. Although they deny this policy, a brief look around any Target store will prove otherwise. Whether it's the advertising, the store decorations or the favored greetings of employees, "Happy Holidays" or "Seasons Greetings" has obviously overtaken Christmas. An online petition, signed by over 500,000 shoppers, produced a promise from Target to add more Christmas to the mix as the 25th approaches, but the result remains to be seen.
PC Greetings From the White House
Even President Bush, the supposed leader of a new Christian theocracy (to hear some on the left tell it), seems to have succumbed to the forces of political correctness. The White House recently sent out its Christmas card. But as has been the custom since the Clinton presidency, it was instead a "holiday card." There was nary a mention of the word "Christmas."
The bland holiday card angered many of Bush's supporters, while doing nothing to lessen the president's reputation among liberals as some sort of new pope. So one has to wonder why the White House promulgated a form of self-censorship with little or no reward involved. That Bush is the first president to honor Hanukkah and Ramadan at the White House certainly need not preclude mention of Christmas in the White House holiday card.
The excuse given by the White House for honoring this precedent is that one must be sensitive to the other holidays occurring at the same time of year -- Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and for the few pagans out there, Winter Solstice. But they really have nothing to do with the discussion. The federal holiday that the country is celebrating on the 25th of December is Christmas, period. With the exception of Hanukkah this year, which coincidentally begins on the 25th, that particular date does not belong to any other holiday. So what's wrong with acting accordingly?
Why is it that Christmas is the only holiday that must be downplayed so that other religions feel more "included"? We don't insist on calling the Muslim holiday of Ramadan by any other name, nor do we impose such restrictions on the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. In all fairness, we would have to label all religious and cultural occasions "holidays," not just Christmas. I wonder how long it would take for members of other religions to express their outrage? Yet when Christians fight back, as they are now with a concerted campaign to stem the anti-Christmas tide, they are ridiculed or vilified by their opponents.
This double standard when it comes to Christians can be seen in many spheres. A friend was shopping recently in one of those cute little neighborhood stores San Francisco prides itself on when she noticed that the man ringing her up was wearing a T-shirt that read, "So Many Rightwing Christians, So Few Lions." No doubt this was intended to be humorous, but the message has serious implications. Simply substitute the words "Jews," "blacks" or "gays" and the outrage would be immediate. But when it comes to Christians, such offensive rhetoric is somehow acceptable. There's even a term for it -- Christianophobia.
Often, the reason given by those who espouse this bigotry is that Christians themselves spew hatred toward other groups. But mostly what's being referred to is disapproval, not hatred. Criticism of another's lifestyle is not equivalent to hating someone or acting violently on hatred. While there will always be the few extremists, the majority of Christians espouse a peaceful approach to their fellow human beings. It would be nice if that fact were acknowledged now and then.
The Holiday With No Name
So what's at the heart of this campaign to erase Christmas? I argue that it's the creeping multiculturalism that has taken hold of our nation. Instead of a melting pot, we have a system whereby Christianity, the majority religion, is being subordinated to all the others in the interest of "equality." Accordingly, Christmas has to be diminished so that no feels left out.
But this sort of excessive pandering to "diversity" is becoming ludicrous. Have we become a nation of insecure adherents to psychobabble? Does the mere presence of Christmas really threaten non-Christians?
During such times, I'm reminded of my mother's childhood in Australia and her experiences being the sole Jewish child in what was essentially a Christian school. Far from feeling left out, she simply accepted the situation at face value. Jewish traditions were kept alive both at home and in a thriving Jewish community, so they didn't need to be shared by the entire school for her to feel secure. She was never insulted or put upon for being Jewish -- that's just how it was. The point is, simply being a member of a minority group is not tantamount to being oppressed.
Perhaps we should remember that lesson when thinking about the Christmas kerfuffle. And the next time someone wishes you a "Happy Holidays," wish them a hearty "Merry Christmas" in return.