Christmas Culture Wars

| December 21, 2010 | Comments (4)

santaAt this time of year, there is a lot of discussion in the media about what I call the Christmas culture wars.  In a multi-ethnic society like ours, where not everyone is Christian, how prevalent should Christmas merriment be? Some people worry about political correctness and eschew Christmas greetings in favor of a more neutral “Happy Holidays” or even “Happy New Year.” On the other side, you hear observant Christians talking about “putting the ‘Christ’ back in Christmas.”

On a trip this past week, my husband saw a flight attendant wearing a pin that said “It’s okay to say ‘Merry Christmas.'”  The television show “30 Rock” had a clever satire of this culture clash with the Vermont-dwelling liberal professor character, played by Alan Alda, wishing everyone a happy winter solstice festival and the Alec Baldwin character’s conservative, Ann Coulter-like girlfriend claiming that “happy holidays is what terrorists say.”

As a Jewish woman who grew up in interfaith family– like Hall of Famer Rod Carew, I converted — I feel that I have a unique perspective on the Christmas culture wars. My nuclear family is Jewish.  But, I did not grow up in a Jewish home and my mother is not Jewish. I grew up celebrating Christmas and when I converted to Judaism, it was important to my mother that I not turn my back on that family tradition. Nor did I want to. As a result, my family observes Hanukkah in our home and at the end of December, we travel to my parents’ home and celebrate Christmas with them. In short, we are a Jewish family who celebrates Christmas with our non-Jewish relatives.

This is actually not at all confusing for my kids. I tell my kids that Santa does not come to our house because we are Jewish, but he goes to Meme and Poppa’s house because Meme is not Jewish. That plainly makes sense. This contrast does lead to some funny moments, however, such as when my daughter asked Santa to bring her her own tzedakah box. (A tzedakah box is a small coin bank where Jewish families save coins to donate to charity.) Many thanks to the Santa at my town’s library last week for not batting an eye over that unusual request.

The fact that I am a Jewish person who celebrates Christmas means that when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas or asks my kids what they want Santa to bring them, I don’t bristle. We are lucky enough to participate in many of the fun, secular Christmas traditions. But I am very aware of how unusual my family’s in-between status is, and as  Jewish person in this largely Christian country, I can imagine all too well how difficult this time of year is for people who do not celebrate Christmas. Christmas is ubiquitous and not participating in such a huge cultural phenomenon is marginalizing, especially for children.

So, here is my take on the Christmas culture wars. To my fellow Jews, let’s not pretend that Christmas doesn’t exist, okay? We are a religious minority in this country. If you want to get away from Christmas, I hear Israel is nice this time of year. So let’s keep our cool about the fact that Christmas is everywhere. If the checkout person at Jewel wishes you a Merry Christmas, it is not okay to bite her head off. It is okay to say politely, “I actually don’t celebrate Christmas. I’m Jewish.” That way, you can nicely spread a little awareness about our faith. School holiday concerts where kids sing Christmas carols are okay too — so long as they also sing some Hanukkah and Kwanzaa songs. The dark days of winter is a time of year when all cultures celebrate something. A school holiday program that acknowledges myriad traditions is a good thing. Personally, I loved watching my daughter and some of her friends from Hebrew school belt out the spiritual “Mary Had a Baby” at her school holiday concert.

And to my fellow Christmas-lovers: let’s not go around assuming that everyone celebrates Christmas, especially not kids, okay? To do so risks making some little kids really sad. At my son’s soccer class the other day, the coach said, “Everyone say your name and what you want Santa to bring you this Christmas.” There were kids of all races and hues in that class and it was simply not okay to assume that all of them celebrate Christmas. These kids were three and four years old. It’s unfair to put young children in the position of having to say, “Santa doesn’t come to my house” in front of a group of their peers.

In other words, it’s okay to say Merry Christmas to people that you know are celebrating Christmas — but that’s not everyone. Adults, I hope, can handle these kind of situations with grace and dignity. But kids shouldn’t have to.

And with that, I want to wish everyone a very happy 2011!

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About Emily: Emily is a Washington DC native now living in the near west suburbs of Chicago. A lawyer by training, she works part-time teaching at a local law school and spends most of her time taking care of her family and volunteering in her community. Emily and her husband have a daughter who is in second grade and a three-year-old son. Emily’s daughter has many food allergies, which can make birthday parties, school lunches and dining out a challenge, but she strives to keep her daughter’s life pretty normal and even fun. Emily’s son does not appear to have any allergies, just a profound aversion to the word "no." Emily’s tastes range from the serious to the frivolous. She subscribes to US Weekly and The New Yorker. She follows politics, theater, movies, television, fashion and pop culture. That doesn’t mean she actually goes to the theater or dresses fashionably, of course. Emily loves to cook more than almost anything else and she recently became an avid canner; but she doesn't garden and she barely decorates. You can read Emily’s thoughts on all these topics and whatever else comes to mind at her personal blog <West of the Loop. View author profile.

Comments (4)

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  1. I LOVE THIS POST! Thank you Emily.

  2. Our girls go to a school where children celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid and Kwanzaa. The kids don’t have any problems with this, but the adults do. It’s often that way isn’t it? Maybe we should be more child-like in our acceptance of others and their beliefs.

  3. At my daughter’s preschool (which is owned and run by an Israeli woman), Santa is coming today. OTOH, there were hand colored dreidels on the wall last week.

    I can tell you, that as a Christian in a large urban area with a lot of Jewish friends, I struggled for years with how to express holiday cheer (mostly on Christmas cards). Now, I mostly say “Merry Christmas.” It’s not because I don’t know that you don’t celebrate it, or not care, but I celebrate it, and that’s why I’m sending cards, and I want to share with you some of the joy of my season. I hope that you will wish me a happy Passover in turn.

  4. Denise says:

    My Jewish friend and I were discussing this topic the other day, and we decided that the US should declare a “December Holiday” that everyone could celebrate — especially since what happens all around us during the month between T’giving & Dec. 25 has very little to do with anyone’s religious observance! Just saying.

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