Wednesday, December 23, 2015
Trouble at Christmas: #2—Grim Jewish ambivalence
The whole "War Against Christmas" bullshit seemed muted this year; my theory is that we have actual woes to concentrate upon. But to let you know how long the non-issue stretches back, this is 17 years old. Odd that it doesn't mention the version of the carol I'm listening to: it's by Tevin Campbell on the "A Very Special Christmas: 2" CD. If you see Rob Sherman at the end and wonder: is he still around? Yeah, lower profile, running for Congress next year on the Green Party ticket.
I have a confession to make. Last night, late, when nobody was around, I played a recording of "O Holy Night" from a CD of Christmas carols that I purchased at a store.
Now, I'm not one of those Jews who has a Christmas tree. That seems wrong to me, like crashing a party you aren't invited to. Or wearing a medal for a battle you didn't fight in. If you don't practice the faith year-round, you shouldn't get to reward yourself with the tree.
But I happen to really like "O Holy Night." I always have. That soaring "fall on your knees" part. It just gets me every time. So I broke down and bought it and, every December, play it from time to time.
I mention this, not because I'm particularly proud, but because I think a lot of Jews are conflicted about Christmas, and we struggle through it every year with a sort of grim ambivalence, not certain if we should join the party or stay home. We feel guilty if we enjoy it and left out if we don't.
From my point of view, the days are too bleak and short in December to avoid Christmas. It helps the month pass by. And, I'll be honest, I like it. Christmas cookies are great. Eggnog with a belt of bourbon in it, also great. The windows at Field's, great. I completely understand why believers get so worked up over the season: Heck, I walk down State Street and feel a lump in my throat even though I never woke up a single morning in my life and scampered down to see what was under the tree.
I don't see how you can avoid Christmas. Society is soaked with it, from the cheery, non-denominational snowmen to the most baroque Jesus-focused nativity scene. The holiday starts in late November and roars on for a month and grows more omnipresent year by year.
Many people are unhappy about that. Ironically, fundamentalist Christians and activists of other religions are united in wishing there was less public Christmas hoopla, for exactly opposite reasons.
For some fundamentalists, most Christmas celebration is a profane and gaudy mockery of the serious underpinnings of faith that the holiday is supposed to mark in the first place.
For some activists of other religions, Christmas is a public imposition of the dominant religion, Christianity, on those too powerless to prevent it, an insulting assumption that we're all in the same boat, faithwise, when of course we are not and getting less so all the time.
Maybe the best way to think of it is a struggle for symbols. In New York, the Empire State Building is lit red and green this time of year, just as the John Hancock is here. Except a spunky 9-year-old New York girl mounted a lobbying campaign toward Leona Helmsley, who owns the Empire State Building, so now it will light up blue and white on the first day of Hanukkah, just to make things fair.
The New York story inspired me put a call in to our own resident symbol struggler, Buffalo Grove's most famous atheist, Rob Sherman, to see what battles he's got percolating this yuletide.
Sherman, who made a name for himself by getting the cross yanked off the seal of the town of Zion, along with other symbolic battles, now has the Niles city hall in his gunsights.
"Just last night I got an e-mail about a U.S. Superior Court ruling," he said, outlining a case in Jersey City, N.J., where the city hall tried to camouflage its nativity scene with a menorah and a snowman.
"That's just what they have in Niles," said Sherman, who framed the issue, in his typically distinctive way, as "Christians trying to cram their beliefs down the throats of those who don't share those beliefs."
I don't know about that. While I am glad that Rob Sherman is gadflying around the suburbs, shaking people up and challenging their beliefs, I just don't think he has the situation expressed accurately. Nobody puts up a lighted Santa Claus and says, "That'll show those Buddhists down the block." I think people are sincere when it comes to Christmas. It's a big deal to them, and they want to do it up right. They're genuinely shocked to find that not everybody appreciates it.
Maybe I'm just growing weary of the symbol struggle. I can't imagine a God who cares whether the chocolate you eat is shaped like Santa Claus or a dreidel. It's all just a party, an excuse to cheer up the cold and dark early winter days with lights and fun and festivity, and I say the more we respect and tolerate each other, and the less we get into that My-Menorah-Is-Bigger-Than-Your-Tree bickering, the better off we'll be. Pass the nog.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 14, 1997