I'm generally live-and-let-live when it comes to faith. All religions are airy nonsense and only familiarity combined with personal bias permit us to view some doctrines as strange and laughable and others as normal and respected. Thus, to me, it doesn't matter what habits and ceremonies your faith demands: wear a special hat, bow to an idol, burn incense, decorate a tree, believe some 2,000-year-old fairy tale is literally true. It's all the same and no skin off my nose.
Only two situations prompt me to object. The first is when groups enlist the government to enforce their own dogma. That isn't playing fair. If you believe God is on your side, why do you need Uncle Sam too? The government is supposed to be the neutral arbitrator between equally ridiculous sects. That is a fine distinction, perhaps, one that is lost on many—they feel oppressed when the governmental stick is pried out of the hands. Some people are so used to having their asses kissed it feels like a birthright to them. Tough. Times change.
The second aspect of faith I can't abide by is when Jews have Christmas trees. Oh, I suppose there are exceptions: if you're in an inter-faith marriage, well, maybe your Christian spouse wants a tree. Then it isn't your tree, it's your wife's, or husband's. The reason I feel so strongly ... well, here's a column from the vault where I try to explain. Note that Friday is not Christmas this year; it's Thursday. I'd hate to mess up your entire holiday, and probably should just change the day in the lede, but then some wiesenheimer would point out that Christmas fell on a Friday in 1998 and attack me for altering the historical record.
Friday is Christmas. I will, as is my practice, work at the newspaper so a colleague who observes the holiday can be with his or her family. This isn't selfless of me—the paper pays double time for working on Christmas, and it's a quiet day if nothing burns down. I'm not missing anything except a day at home. My family doesn't eat a special dinner. We don't sing songs, we don't give gifts, we don't have a tree. We're Jewish. This sounds simple enough, but a lot of people don't get it. First, there are the Christians for whom Christmas is an event of such monumental proportions - one they start preparing for in July - that they can't understand that there are people who voluntarily give it up. The exchange, which I've had a dozen times, always begins breezily. "What are you doing this year for Christmas?" they'll say. "Nothing," I reply. Their features darken and they struggle to get their arms around the concept. They think I've perhaps misunderstood. "Yes, yes," they say, "but what are you doing Dec. 25?" The second group is a little more surprising. Certain Reform Jews—many, if my social circle is any indication—are not satisfied with paring away the strictures of their own religion, but also must embrace the festivities of another. They put up a tree. They visit Santa. They embrace Christmas because not doing so feels like denial, and they can't imagine denying themselves anything. I find it a particularly repellent form of intellectual dishonesty. Holidays are the fun part of a religion, but religions are not all fun. There are commandments, rules, serious parts as well. To latch onto the frills of somebody else's faith just because they're fun seems disrespectful of both your own faith and theirs. It's like crashing a party. You don't know these people, haven't put in the effort that being friends requires. Yet you're lining up for the buffet anyway. It's crass. When I think of Jews celebrating Christmas, for the first time I understand the sort of contempt that some Orthodox Jews have for us lesser Semitic breeds who have shucked the demands of keeping kosher and praying and kept the parts that are easy and enjoyable. There's a sense of expropriation, like teens wearing battle ribbons we didn't earn as fashion. Christmas is a wonderful holiday. Wonderful music. A Christmas tree is a beautiful thing. A high school friend once asked me over to help trim hers, and I had a blast. Hot buttered rum. Great food. Afterward we went from house to house, singing in the crisp night. (Well, I didn't sing, but only because I don't know the words.) How could you not love it? But it wasn't my tree. It wasn't my holiday. I have my own holidays. My boys lit candles at Hanukkah. I got to see their faces illuminated by the candles, happy, singing. My oldest, Ross, is just 3 but has picked up on Christmas. He closely watches the Christmas specials on TV. He saw the Santa on a Christmas card on our mantel and asked why it was there, since we don't celebrate Christmas. I explained that somebody had sent it to us. He had a sort of pout. I asked him how he felt about not celebrating Christmas. He said one word: "Sad." I weighed my response for a long time. "That's OK," I said at last. "It is a little sad not to celebrate Christmas. But we have our own holidays we celebrate." He didn't seem to understand. But he will.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 2, 1998