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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


  1. Maybe it's the Ambien and I'm watching for the first time "Eyes Wide Shut" but did Steinberg just hit one completely out of the park on Waveland Avenue?!?!?!? I was expecting his usual hate all thing heterosexual, Christian, White and male. This article strikes the perfect balance. Everytime I swear him off he comes through in the ninth.

    1. "Usual hate"? Cite an example or shut up. Some people consider it hate when people think differently and say so. If the entire culture stopped dead in its tracks for a week for my holiday, I'd show a little more consideration for the underlings who don't celebrate it, don't share my religion, and yet manage far more grace, without a God, than you can manage with one.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. He started out heading toward a compliment, but then ended up in a ditch. "You don't suck as much as usual" is not exactly a compliment. By the way, Okie, don't vogue here. It gets annoying.

  2. A bunch of thoughts here:
    1. As a former Jew & now atheist, I genuinely hate this holiday! The enforced merriment is absurd & the inflicting of the worst music ever written is even worse, although the most ironic part is that those that love the music forget that some of their favorite songs were written by Jews!

    2. But as a logical person, I also remember that Jewish holidays are totally, fucking depressing, except for two minor holidays, Purim & Hanukkah. They're basically, they tried to kill us, we somehow managed to survive, so let's eat bad food & tell depressing stories, when we aren't in a bland & depressing synagogue, praying to a god that has failed us time & time & time again. After all, if Raoul Wallenberg & Oskar Schindler are just a couple of the few good people to come from the time of the Holocaust, then this supposed god all of you are wasting your time worshiping, is a total fuckup!
    That might be where the Xtians got it right, they don't have many depressing holidays, which except for Good Friday, they don't, but even that isn't as depressing as almost all Jewish holidays.

    1. Some of those atheists are grumps that should find better things to do.It seems they want to force their beliefs down peoples throats or overly obsess over some symbol on a town vehicle. That would hardly wreck the church and state division. (Not a fundamentalist)

    2. Clark: You find Passover depressing? "We were slaves now we're free." It's the most apt thing in religion. With most faiths, it's the other way around: you were free now you're slaves. Though they don't come out and say it.

    3. Of course Passover is depressing!
      We're free & so we have to eat crappy food for a week to celebrate it?
      Abject stupidity!

    4. Maybe for you. But then, you might not have the cooks in your family that I do. I would call condemnation of things you don't like abject stupidity. Or to quote Thoreau, don't "mistake a private ill for a poisoned air."

    5. Clark, You would have made a good writer for Seinfeld.

  3. Clark get to youtube and have a listen to Otis Reddings bluesy version of White Christmas and you might change your mind. Or the Temptations Silent Night or David Bowie's Drummer Boy version. It's a lot better than boring Bing on his own. Also try the Drifter's version of WC.

    1. No!
      I hate them all except for Nat King Cole singing Mel Torme's Xmas song [Chestnuts roasting etc] & Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas] from Meet Me In St. Louis.

    2. A shame, looks like cool guy Jakash has decided not to join the new sign up.

  4. It's ironic that a season that is supposed to be about joy, peace and love gets twisted into another reason for people to hate each other. Par for the course.

  5. I've always loved to play "O, Holy Night," it's a beautiful piece for cello. One of the best renditions I've heard is by the Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling, just gorgeous. The thing that bugs me, and this is where the "War on Christmas" should focus, is the Christmas creep. More and more stores are putting out stuff before Halloween, soon I guess some will just keep it year round.

    1. Yeah, only 367 days to Christmas!

    2. Have you ever performed "L'Enfance du Christ,"by Berlioz Nikki? Tears your heart out.

      Tom Evans

    3. I have performed it, and I agree, it's an amazing work.

  6. I agree with David Graf (9:08). The word "hate" is one I try to avoid using; to me it's vile and destructive when used to attack someone or something, even when describing someone as a "hater". But that's just me. Being raised in the Christian faith (though currently conflicted and agnostic), the Christmas season has always represented a feeling of love and joy, and I'm grateful I can still hold onto that, at least. Happy Holidays to all.


  7. Holidays are great because they bring people together to celebrate with food, music and remembrances. Whether the holiday is religious or national doesn't make much difference. If some people want to use religious holidays as a reason to attack or defend others, well that's their sorry business, as if they don't have anything better to do than hate. Just don't show up to our celebrations.

    The fight over public displays and symbolism is ridiculous. I'm agnostic, but setting up a large red letter "A" to stand for and defend non-believers is stupid.

  8. On thing Jews probably don't have to put up with are the increasingly artistic Christmas cards from people you scarcely know accompanied by long essays relating in tedious detail their year's travels, their travails, and the intimidating accomplishments of their progeny.

    Christmas music is not inherently bad. Just the repetition of over-produced renditions of the same pieces. Hate the massed forces of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir blasting at me in department stores and elevators. Love hearing the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast from Christ Church College Cambridge on Christmas morning.

    The best Christmas poem was by Thomas Hardy, about a country legend that animals kneel to acknowledge the birth of Christ. It confronts nicely the sweetness of the childhood belief with the skepticism about religious fables that is our adult portion.

    Christmas Eve and twelve of the clock.
    "Now they are all on their knees,"
    An elder said as we sat in a flock
    By the embers in hearthside ease.

    We pictured the meek mild creatures where
    They dwelt in their strawy pen,
    Nor did it occur to one of us there
    To doubt they were kneeling then.

    So fair a fancy few would weave
    In those years! Yet I feel,
    If someone said on Christmas Eve,
    "come see the oxen kneel,

    "In the lonely barton by yonder comb
    Our childhood used to know,"
    I should go with him in the gloom
    Hoping it might be so.

    Tom Evans

    1. First word should have been one. More importantly, the third stanza of the poem should read "So fair a fancy few would weave In these years..."


    2. The Transiberian orchestra has some nice Xmas music.

    3. You watch TSO in concert for the lasers & pyrotechnics. A CD just won't do!

  9. Love the Hardy characters who get religion and become worse for it.



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