Too Much Christmas?
Rather than stay fixated on last year’s “war against Christmas,” dust-up, the New York Times this holiday season has been running a veritable flood of articles suggesting that, when it comes to Christmas: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. No less than seven articles have put forward the argument that even those who might have good reason to distance themselves from Christmas tend to be happier (and less curmudgeonly) when they simply embrace the holiday that everyone loves.
The first article that I noticed in this unintended series was a December 17 news article focusing on a number of prominent athiests who suggest that Christmas has become so “divorced” from religion that they feel little conflict over indulging in its celebration. The majority of the articles on this topic, however, have focused upon Jews (a number of the atheists are also identified as being of Jewish background). A December 20 article entitled ”Los Angeles Journal” for instance, described a Christmas display that was wreaking havoc not only because it was illuminating a predominantly Jewish (and orthodox) neighborhood, but because the woman behind all the lights and huge blow-up Christmas characters was herself Jewish. The article reports on complaints from some of the neighbors and the display owner’s response that “I don’t think candy canes have anything to do with religion.” It concludes with the question posed by one neighbor (“a British Jew”): “why don’t Jewish people decorate more?”
Three articles, which all ran on Christmas eve, offer slightly embarrassed admissions by Jewish authors of the powerful role that Christmas has played in either their youthful or adult lives. Finally, a piece by guest op-ed columnist Orlando Patterson on December 23 offered a useful frame on all the articles, arguing that American Christmases are such a pastiche of contributions from America’s different ethnic groups, that no one should object to it as anything other than a quintessentially American holiday. Patterson suggests that the “muted Christian element” of an American Christmas should be no less alienating to non-Christians than the Christian-inflected art of Botticelli or Fra Angelico. In his view, we should be able to celebrate Christmas without buying into Christianity, just as we might be able to enjoy jazz “without much caring for black culture.”
These articles suggest that Christmas is so fun and good and so – thanks to the openness of American society -- available to all, that there is little reason not to participate. As many note, much of its celebration grows out of pagan customs anyway, and as one letter to the editor from an agreeable atheist inveighed: why not “celebrate what we have in common rather than sitting out the season because of what we disagree on.”
But I find other, more sobering, messages in this “let’s all celebrate” journalism.
For one thing, these articles powerfully reflect what we all know: the pervasiveness and total penetration of Christmas culture in American lives. Their testimony to the irresistibility of Christmas also illuminates just how hard it is to maintain distinctive identities that push against mainstream American patterns.
Another message conveyed in these articles is that religious traditions are interchangeable. Orlando Patterson rhapsodizes about how soothing and glorious a public Christmas tree decorated with menorahs would be. Cindy Chupack suggests that, although she is currently luxuriating in Christmas pleasures that she was denied as a Jewish girl, when it comes to having kids, she and her husband will probably go back to the “eight days is better than one” philosophy. But she ends by suggesting that it might be “nice to teach children that holidays can be done a la carte,” teaching tolerance by drawing upon the beautiful traditions of many cultures.
It’s safe to assume that most American children from all backgrounds will grow up, like I did, fluent in Christmas – able to sing dozens of Christmas carols and well versed in Christmas narratives ranging from the manger, to the North Pole to 34th Street. But if Jewish parents at Christmas time cannot let their children know that these festivities, these lights, these carols, these stories, this birthday, are not theirs – then how will they ever be able to convey any sense of distinctive identity in a culture so intent on stamping us all the same?
Perhaps it would be more Christmas-like to suggest that the world would be better off if we could just unite around peace on earth and goodwill toward men. But to give these familiar phrases meaning – to raise them above the season’s commercial blare -- Christmas needs to be more than a bland concoction of holiday cheer and eggnog easily adapted by pagans, atheists, Jews and Muslims alike. Those who celebrate it should stop pretending that it’s not named after Christ. It may be unsettling to acknowledge just how much a Christian celebration structures so much of American life -- our economy, our calendar (as relates to school, work, leisure, and family), and so much of our cultural vocabulary. It might, however, clarify the need that some of us have to maintain what distance we can from its omnipresent celebration.
Christmas is very much with all of us. I’m quite content to walk down my street and enjoy the trees in other people’s windows – but I do not need one in my own. I don’t think this makes me a bad American – I ‘d rather believe that a society that is able to make room for even this small measure of difference is one that might find a way to offer true respect and inclusion for all its members.