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Oh Holiday Tree! Oh Holiday Tree!
For some of us, this is the time of year when we are forced to confront the reality that, despite living in a country where Jews are free not only to assertively practice (or not practice) their faith, we are still a small religious minority.
That means wherever we move about this free land, we are subjected to the ever-present sight of Christmas trees and Santas while our ears are assaulted by the non-stop playing of saccharin carols. Though such displays are a manifestation of the desire of merchants to move consumers to buy things, rather than any lurking conversionary agenda, that hasn't prevented the "December dilemma" industry from making a meal out of any real or perceived slight to Jewish sensibilities.
Those Jews who are truly secure in their faith and identity aren't threatened by Christmas. But since Jewish insecurity always trumps common sense, the "dilemma" continues to generate angst.
But recently the sound of Jewish complaining has been drowned out by another contingent of malcontents: Christians who claim that church-state separation mania has transformed the celebration of Christmas into a forbidden activity.
Conservative pundits have united to seize upon the trend of calling Christmas shindigs "holiday" parties as proof that the ACLU has outlawed the biggest Christian holiday of the year.
While some might consider this merely a polite way of including the non-Christian minority in what has become a largely secular celebration, the conservatives do have a couple of points.
Call It By Its Right Name
Calling symbols that are clearly associated with Christmas anything but that is simply stupid. You can call these trees and all the rest that goes with them anything you like, but they are about Christmas, not anything else. Removing the name doesn't make them less Christian and only offends believers.
Moreover, Christianity is not America's problem. The freedoms that all Americans enjoy here do not exist in spite of a Bible-based Christianity, but to no small extent because of the faith and values of Christian Americans.
Part of the problem is that the courts have struck some odd compromises over the years about Christian symbols. While banning the establishment of a particular faith, judges have rightly perceived that the First Amendment was not a mandate to cleanse the public square of religious symbols. Nor could any court in its right mind expunge Dec. 25 from the list of federal holidays.
But rather than admit that the day off postal workers get for Christmas is to honor what more than 90 percent of Americans believe is the birthday of their Messiah, our robed judicial masters like to pretend it isn't a religious holiday. That's why Christmas symbols such as trees and Santas are considered secular and entitled to place on public property.
Yet when a city like Boston officially refrains from calling the massive tree on Boston Common a Christmas tree, it justifiably provokes derision. So, too, would any attempt to ban the word Christmas from displays in a misguided effort to make non-Christians feel better. It's especially dumb when you consider that no one tries to rename the Chanukah menorahs that are often placed besides the trees in public spaces.
But to listen to all of the screaming about "de-Christmasing Christmas," you have to wonder what's really going on?
Does anyone who wanders about even the cities of the Northeast where non-Christians are most numerous and not know that it is Christmas season? Amid the avalanche of Santas, trees, creches and other yuletide icons, you'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to know that you are living in a Christian country, if not by law, but by custom.
My advice to those Christians who are feeling threatened is to put themselves in the place of a non-Christian toddler this time of year. Mind you, my four-year-old and her parents are just fine celebrating our own holidays and have no problems with some of our friends knocking themselves out for Christmas. But as my daughter could tell you, most of the people she sees on television or elsewhere aren't getting ready for Chanukah.
Losing the Culture Wars
So what's really causing people like Fox News personality John Gibson to write a book claiming there is a "Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday?" Do Gibson and fellow Fox provocateur Bill O'Reilly really think Target, Sears and Costco are trying to undermine faith when their ads wish customers "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas?"
Maybe. Or have they just spent so much time listening to Jewish whining about December that they've started to copy it? Some days it seems that Rev. Jerry Falwell and O'Reilly are just aping the "dilemma" paranoia routine that liberal Jews have perfected.
But as easy as it is to make fun of all of their carping, something real lies behind it. Ironically, just at the moment when Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman accused Christian conservatives of plotting to extinguish religious liberty, the same people that he (and most other liberals) wrongly believe are on the verge of overthrowing the Constitution, think they are the ones whose liberties are on the chopping block.
To listen to Christian conservatives these days is to hear the cries of a segment of the population that believes they are being thoroughly marginalized.
Despite their numbers and political strength, the Christian right's self image is that of a group that has been stymied on social issues and being driven out of the mainstream. Anyone who reads daily newspapers or watches television or the majority of film releases could confirm that their views on issues such as gay rights and abortion have been treated that way.
Thus, while the notion of a "war against Christmas" is farcical, the insecurity that drives such foolishness is not. It is based on the same sort of reasoning that drives their opponents on the other end of the ideological spectrum. That ought to give liberal activists pause.
Perhaps what this country really needs at the end of the calendar year is not so much a holiday season as a cease-fire. Instead of using each other as bogeymen to rally the troops for the culture wars, maybe both extreme separationists and hard-core conservative Christians should realize that the fears and insecurity felt by the other side are real.
Rather than being so quick to go to the barricades against their fellow citizens, true believers of all creeds (both religious and secular) must understand that the public square of our heaven-blessed republic is big enough to hold us all.
Jonathan S. Tobin is reachable via e-mail at: [email protected].