Belle is a Jewish reader of the recent Ethics Alarms Christmas post who sent her comment to me off-site, then agreed to have it posted as the Comment of the Day after I requested permission.
She describes a real dilemma that I am very aware of, and thus am grateful for her raising it clearly and directly. I’ll be back with a bit more at the end, but here is Belle’s Comment of the Day on the post, On the Importance Of Christmas To The Culture And Our Nation : An Ethics Alarms Guide:
I would like to try to make you understand at least a little why I am SO heartened that my children are growing up with “Happy Holidays” and Chanukah menorahs along with Christmas trees in public places, and how difficult it was for those of us non-Christians who didn’t. I sense that you were so antagonized by your colleague’s aggressiveness and different world view that you couldn’t hear what might have been behind the aggressiveness. You write that “Jews, Muslims, atheists and Mayans who take part in a secular Christmas and all of its traditions—including the Christmas carols and the Christian traditions of the star, the manger and the rest, lose nothing, and gain a great deal. Christmas is supposed to bring everyone in a society together after the conflicts of the past years have pulled them apart, What could possibly be objectionable to that? What could be more important than that, especially in these especially divisive times? How could it possibly be responsible, sensible or ethical to try to sabotage such a benign, healing, joyful tradition and weaken it in our culture, when we need it most?”
There was plenty of harm to me and my family. I don’t expect you as someone who was raised in the majority culture to understand what it felt like growing up Jewish at Christmastime. It certainly did not feel like it was bringing us together with other Americans. To put it most aptly and bluntly, the message I got every year was that I was less of an American because my family was not Christian. This is what Christmas meant to me and so many other Jews growing up, even in a large Northeast city with a substantial Jewish population. I was always sure that Ebenezer Scrooge was a commentary on the Jews: to this day I have no desire to see “A Christmas Carol.” “A Charlie Brown Christmas” told me what Christmas was all about. It was a belief that was not part of my family and, at least at that time, a source of persecution for my family because we did not share that belief.
We were The Other and regarded with suspicion. I assume you’ve seen “Gentlemen’s Agreement?” The star, the manger, and the best Christmas carols are NOT secular, and I don’t quite understand why Christians consider them to be so, although when my oldest son attended a Christian school I did understand from conversations with other parents that they truly did consider them to be so. But the words are not secular. When I was growing up, those Jews I know who joined in felt terribly self-conscious and felt like we had to hide the fact that we were non-Christians. It was a painful, painful time.
It is so much easier for my children and so much easier for me to join in Christmas celebrations nowadays, when our heritage is acknowledged as a part of things even if Chanukah is a lame holiday. Every culture has a solstice holiday, not just Christians. The acknowledgement that America is a country of many cultures, not just Christian, helps us join more fully in the festivities, including singing Christmas carols, which I love to do. I’m not trying to start an argument, but I did want to attempt to make you understand at least a little what it feels like from the shoes of a non-Christian and how hurtful it is to suggest that it’s easy and beneficial for us to just pretend we’re Christians.
I’m back, and I get it. Those in the Jewish culture and faith have had every reason to feel “othered” and to be hyper-sensitive to what may appear as exclusion. I knew Jewish families who felt this way back in Arlington, Mass, and I just felt sorry for the kids, that they couldn’t enjoy the season with the rest of us. I also knew devout Jewish families that celebrated Christmas without worrying about the Christian trappings, including the words of the songs. It’s clear that my own peculiar orientation is mixed up in this: my parents were Christmas fanatics, but at most mildly religious. My father was cynical about all organized religion. I can listen to “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and get choked up because of its message, because I remember seeing Bing Crosby sing it live on TV when I was a kid, because I know the story of how it was written, and because its message is positive and inspiring. But to me, it’s still a secular song, just like “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Holy Night” and the Hallelujah chorus are just kick-ass music that make me feel glad to be alive. I never felt like we were pretending to be Christians by singing and enjoying “Silent Night” or “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” any more than I felt we were devil worshipers to celebrate Halloween, or that we believed in saints when we sent Valentine’s Day gifts and cards. Pretending to be Christian is a topic for a whole other post: I think part of the appeal of Christmas is that it gives lapsed Christians a way to pretend they still believe, once a year.
It’s interesting that Belle thought of Scrooge as Jewish and his change a religious conversion. It is pretty well established that Dickens was anti-Semitic, but most critics agree that Scrooge wasn’t intended to be a Jew. Rather, the fact that he didn’t celebrate Christmas invited a comparison of Jews to a mean niggardly man with an Old Testament name. Remember, we see Scrooge celebrating Christmas, and rather enthusiastically too, as a young man. Let’s not search for ways to find the most ethical piece of English literature I know politically incorrect. Please. Please.
Thanks for writing this, Belle.