Friday, December 21, 2018

 

A War on Christmas?


This is the time of year where, in certain quarters, one hears about a "War on Christmas" (WoC). In fact, a recent poll found that "39% of people believe that "There is a 'War on Christmas' happening in the US." There is, indeed, good reason to believe that Christmas is under attack.

Marc Daalder, writing in the Jewish Forward in December 2016, situates the WoC within "the zone of the culture wars" and asserts that "saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas" is "one of the preeminent issues" that "must be pressed". In Daalder's view: "The War on Christmas is really a War for Inclusivity, and it is essential as we look towards remaking and repairing American culture going forward from this divisive election. To abandon multiculturalism or identity politics because Middle America rejected them is to simply surrender after years of hard work. No, the work must continue and the war must be fought."

Adam Kirsch (whom Daalder quotes), writing in another Jewish publication, Tablet Magazine, claims "Talk of a war on Christmas is, then, at least implicitly anti-Jewish ..." As evidence he cites a 2009 op-ed by Garrison Keillor entitled: "NONBELIEVERS, PLEASE LEAVE CHRISTMAS ALONE". Keillor had the temerity to write:
Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that's their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite "Silent Night." If you don't believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn "Silent Night" and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism, and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. 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.
Christmas is a Christian holiday - if you're not in the club, then buzz off. Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don't mess with the Messiah.
Kirsch wasn't the only one to take umbrage to Keillor's remarks.

Also in 2009, Slate published an article by Benyamin Cohen noting:
The Jewish community has long had a tense relationship with Christmas ... As a public service announcement, I'm here to let you in on what the rabbis thought about Christmas Eve. Gather round, little ones. This is a scary tale.
The Talmud, with its share of rabbinic repudiations against Jesus, was never a big fan of Christmas. Call it the Grinch. Indeed, the rabbis looked at it as a day of mourning ...
And so the rabbis decreed that the public study hall be closed and that no Torah learning take place on this night [i.e. Christmas eve] ... the leaders were also concerned about the popularly held belief in Judaism that studying the Torah brings spiritual benefit to the world at large. Many didn't want to make this positive contribution on what they considered a "pagan" night.
In a similar vein Daniel J. Solomon writes about his "Hannukah bush" in the Forward: ".. to me, the bush isn't a sign of assimilation, a 'neither Jew nor Gentile' copout, a helping of potato love with bacon and cheese spread. It's a subversive act, claiming and reinterpreting an item historically representative of exclusion, and sometimes violence directed against us." Solomon concludes his piece:
... religious pluralism is now the norm. But there's still a need to create a more inclusive December. Some might call that fighting a "war on Christmas." Why not? There should be a "war on Christmas." We should de-center Christianity as the "reason for the season" in a diverse America.
American Jews have been doing that for a while. Irving Berlin helped transform Christmas into a celebration of snow, not Jesus. Jewish comedians have created "Reuben, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Hanukkah Harry." The Hanukkah bush does something akin to this, both claiming and satirizing the Christmas tree.
My impetus for this post was reading, some time ago, Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut's book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to be Jewish (Rutgers UP, 2012). Early on Plaut affirmatively quotes "Jonathan Sarna, a preeminent historian of American Jewry". According to Plaut, Sarna argued that: "... American Jews have a 'Christmas problem.' Although American civil religion calls upon all Americans to join in the Christmas spirit, on the actual holiday of Christmas the religious overtones of Christianity are apparent throughout American society ..."

Plaut's book, then, is about how Jews have responded to this "Christmas problem". He claims:
Jews in the United States have, in fact, made great progress in resolving December dilemmas. Such an ongoing resolution is evolving out of the creative efforts of American Jewry to coopt the Christmas season by reshaping it to reflect uniquely Jewish ideas, concerns, and practices and by developing a variety of strategies directed toward neutralizing Christmas in America. American Jewry's success in challenging Christmas's vaunted status rests upon forging an identity that is at once separate from the religious and historical dimensions of Christmas, yet convergent with its underlying spirit. Jews in America, particularly during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, employ a multitude of strategies to face the particular challenges of Christmas and to overcome feelings of exclusion and isolation. Jews have played a crucial role in popularizing Christmas. They have enhanced the national observance of Christmas by composing many of the Christmas songs beloved by all Americans. More secular than religious, these songs, among them Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," Walter Rollins and Steve Fletcher's "Frosty the Snowman," and, most recently, Paul Simon's "Getting Ready for Christmas Day," remind celebrants that Christmas belongs to all Americans who share in the spirit of patriotism, generosity, peace, and goodwill. It is ironic, however, that other Jews in the United States have developed strategies to downplay the significance of Christmas by composing poems and songs—in print, performance, and the media—that satirize and neutralize the religious nature of the holiday ...
Responding to the resurgence of Jewish identity in the United States, partially occasioned by support for the State of lsrael, Jews in America have reinvented the celebration of Hanukkah as an alternative to Christmas. This strategy has made it easier for Jewish parents to influence their children to avoid Christmas in favor of celebrating Hanukkah. [emphasis added]
On this note, the aforementioned Kirsch references "... how American Jews could develop Hanukkah, previously a fairly minor winter holiday, into such a successful counterpart to Christmas. Religiously and ideologically, Hanukkah is just about the worst holiday possible for such a purpose—it is, after all, a story about Jews resisting assimilation by violence." It would be more accurate to say that Hanukkah commemorates a bloody civil war where assimilationists were defeated by traditionalists.

However, even self-described "assimilated Jews" who believe "the story of Hanukkah" has "at its heart ... an eight-night-long celebration of religious fundamentalism and violence" will still celebrate it "Because at the end of the day, it's all about beating Santa." (On Hanukkah as a Zionist holiday see "Reinventing Hanukkah: The Israeli Politics of the Maccabean Holiday".)

Plaut also writes:
With a constitutional bravado emanating from a growing religious segment within the American Jewish community, the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch organization ... has waged war against strict separation of religion and state and has won from the courts the right to display menorahs in public venues. Members of the Chabad-Lubavitch group have been supported by Christian religious fundamentalists who want crèches allowed in these same municipally governed spaces. These religious groups, Jewish and Christian alike, have come up against the American Civil Liberties Union and Jewish organizations with a long history of winning court injunctions against any encroachment of religion on state.
Curiously, in his Introduction at least, Plaut fails to mention that while Jews were successful in 1989 in getting Supreme Court approval (6-3) for menorahs to be displayed on public property in County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, 492 U.S. 573 (1989) in the very same decision the Court ruled 5-4 that crèches or nativity scenes on public property were generally forbidden. I believe that County of Allegheny is still considered a valid precedent.

To sum up, I have presented a variety of mostly Jewish perspectives acknowledging and even applauding that Jews qua Jews are waging a War on Christmas. This is, apparently, okay for Jews to write about but not okay for folks like Garrison Keillor, however tepidly or tangentially they may address the subject. Perhaps, this is why the people at Fox News, the outlet that, arguably, did the most to popularize the idea of a WoC are too cowardly to say that—even as they are not the only ones waging the fight—Jews are front and center in the War on Christmas.

For an interesting review of A Kosher Christmas see " 'Twas the Day After Christmas ..." by Ethan Schwartz on Jewish Ideas Daily. Among other things Schwartz worries:
There is something disconcerting about [Plaut's] thesis, summoning up classic anti-Semitic images of conspiracy and sabotage. Without a trace of irony, Plaut recounts incidents in which fundamentalist Christian groups complained that "certain Americans, particularly Jews, were trying to take the 'Christ' out of Christmas." He adds that "anti-Semitic comments often ensued." Those Christian fundamentalists might well feel vindicated by Plaut's argument ...

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