Monday, December 26, 2005

Jeff Jacoby: De-Christmasing Christmas

Jeff Jacoby, a strongly devout Jew and columnist for the Boston Globe, isn’t one of those people who wants Christmas watered down and diluted in the service of “inclusiveness.” In a column of his published in late November, he argues:
And so it begins again — the annual effort to neuter Christmas, to insist in the name of “inclusiveness” and “sensitivity” that a Christian holiday celebrated by something like 90 percent of Americans not be called by its proper name or referred to in religious terms. We all know the drill by now. Instead of “Merry Christmas,” store clerks wish you a “happy holiday.” Schools close for winter break. Your office throws a holiday party.

Sometimes the secularizing impulse goes to laughable extremes, as when the elementary school play is titled “How the Grinch Stole the Holidays” or when red poinsettias (but not white ones) are banned from city hall. Sometimes it springs from clanging ignorance, as with the New York City policy that prohibited the display of Christian nativity scenes on public school grounds, while expressly allowing such “secular holiday symbol decorations” as Jewish menorahs and the Muslim star and crescent. And some of it is fueled by anti-Christian bigotry or sheer misanthropic bile.

But mostly, I think, this attempt to fade Christmas into a nondenominational winter holiday stems from a twisted notion of courtesy — from the idea that tolerance and respect for minorities require intolerance and disrespect for the majority. Better to call the company shindig a “holiday” party, this line of thinking goes, than to risk offending the few non-Christian employees by calling it a Christmas party. Better to ban all Christmas carols from the school concert than to take the chance that a Jew or Muslim or Hindu might feel excluded. Better to remove the Christmas trees from all the dormitory dining halls because a single student complained — as happened last year at the University of Illinois — than to politely inform the student that the trees will be removed after the Christmas season ends.


But suppressing the language, symbols, or customs of Christians in a predominantly Christian society is not inclusive. It’s insulting.

It’s discriminatory, too. Hanukkah menorahs are never referred to as “holiday lamps” — not even the giant menorahs erected in Boston Common and many other public venues each year by Chabad, the Hasidic Jewish outreach movement. No one worries that calling the Muslim holy month of Ramadan by its name — or even celebrating it officially, as the White House does with an annual “iftaar” dinner — might be insensitive to non-Muslims. In this tolerant and open-hearted nation, religious minorities are not expected to keep their beliefs out of sight or to squelch their traditions lest someone, somewhere, take offense. Surely the religious majority shouldn’t be expected to either.

As a practicing Jew, I don’t celebrate Christmas. There is no Christmas tree in my home, my kids don’t write letters to Santa Claus, and I don’t attend church on Dec. 25 (or any other date). Does the knowledge that scores of millions of my fellow Americans do all those things make me feel excluded or offended? On the contrary: It makes me feel grateful — to live in a land where freedom of religion shelters the Hanukkah menorah in my window no less than the Christmas tree in my neighbor’s. That freedom is a reflection of America’s Judeo-Christian culture, and a principal reason why, in this overwhelmingly Christian country, it isn’t only Christians for whom Christmas is a season of joy. And why it isn’t only Christians who should make a point of saying so.
One might think that, since Jacoby is a very religious Jew, he might be particularly wary of anything privileging or institutionalizing Christianity.

But somehow it doesn’t work that way.

At the risk of psychoanalyzing somebody we don’t know, it seems to us that Jacoby, who cherishes his own religious faith, and would not want it diluted or secularized, identifies with people of other religions who are likewise committed to their faith.

Not surprisingly, the more secular Jews of the Anti-Defamation League are a lot less tolerant.

Here, as on the other fronts of the Culture Wars, the lines don’t divide Protestant, Catholic, Jew and Muslim, but rather find all believers at odds with the forces of secularism.


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