A few years ago, a Jewish FB friend posted that she had been at some civic luncheon and was sitting next to a non-Jewish woman. One of them was wearing red and the other hunter green, and the Gentile woman said, “Oh, look! Together we make Christmas!” The FB friend reported that she was flustered and didn’t know what to say.
That level of discomfort seems a little out of place to me, living as we do in a nation in which red and green pretty much take over the place for six weeks each year. “Together we make Christmas” would be an unusual remark in, say, downtown Riyadh or at Kol Nidrei services, but it’s a perfectly natural observation in religiously mixed company in the U.S. of A. I mean I like to play a computer game that involves dropping virtual marbles, and I think fleetingly of Christmas every time I see a red and a dark green marble together. All year round. That’s how 62 years of life in America can shape your neural pathways.
The “war on Christmas” imagined by certain right-wing commentators is well-known and completely bogus, but at this time of year, a few of my fellow Jews also seem to imagine a Gentile community that is ganging up on them with verbal greetings of “Merry Christmas” and obliviousness to any other faith community’s seasonal holiday. But we have to expect that. We Jews comprise about 2 percent of the American population (significantly less where I live, maybe up to 10 percent if you live in a major city or one of its suburbs), but unless you reside in one of this nation’s few Jewish enclaves, Christmas is going to be the predominant civic theme between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, and Chanukah is never going to get equal time or even a whole lot of recognition.
There are non-Jewish folks who do want to know about Chanukah — I explained the holiday to a bunch of at-risk kids at a very Christian residential facility on Wednesday and next week will light a chanukiyah at a huge senior living center in which the Jewish residents can be counted on one hand. But Chanukah can’t compete with Christmas in the marketplace of American culture. That’s why Chanukah is so fraught with tension for Jewish parents of school-aged children. It’s a big reason that the December Dilemma looms so large for the intermarried. It’s why Chanukah became a gift-giving holiday, and why I wish the American Jewish community would adopt almost any Jewish holiday other than Chanukah for exchanging presents. (I’ve been on the record about that last point for years: http://www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/a_modest_proposal_20001215)
Maybe I’m just lucky: old enough to have experienced singing Christmas carols in public school as seasonal rather than religious music, and young enough not to have been chased down the street by anti-Semitic schoolmates. But Christmas doesn’t pose any kind of threat to this rabbi. Christmas is powerful, but it can’t damage our Jewishness; it can’t even detract from the joy we derive from celebrating Chanukah unless we let it.
On Christmas morning my husband and I will open gifts with my Presbyterian mother-in-law and pagan sister-in-law, neither of whom ever bothers to find out when Chanukah actually falls, so it’s always nice when it coincides with Christmas. Tomorrow night I may go to late Christmas Eve service at the Episcopal church that’s been hosting my Torah Study for Skeptics class because the music and liturgy are lovely and I have friends there now. I’ll skip this year’s Messiah sing-along because it falls on erev Shabbat, but I may go next year, because the fact that Handel wrote such glorious music outweighs his co-opting Isaiah to celebrate Jesus and his being a massive anti-Semite. And I’ll answer anyone’s greeting of “Merry Christmas!” with “You too!” because I know it’s meant as fellowship, not proselytism, and my neighbors’ neglect of my holiday is as benign as their plates of red-and-green cookies.