How do I feel as a rabbi during Christmas?
I feel great.
First of all, I love Christmas music. The innocent, hopeful melodies, the joyous diddies, the corny jingles — all of them bring smiles to my face. And when they become too cheesy or too much, I change the station. The fact that many of the most famous songs have Jewish composers only underscores the amazing cross-cultural pollination that is America at its best.
Next, I think the decorations are wonderful. The lights are festive. The inflatables are mildly ridiculous — in a fun way. The projections on the houses get more and more colorful each year. I’ve inoculated my children against Christmas envy with a steady diet of Christmas house viewing and helping our Christian friends celebrate at their homes. Boring office building lobbies are filled with green and red, people try to be a bit more cheerful and friendly. Outside many local stores the Salvation Army stands asking for charity amid the rampant consumerism — and people give!
Christmas has also boosted the profile of our minor festival of Hanukkah. Every Jew knows the story of the miraculous light burning for eight days, they know of the brave Maccabees standing up for their religious freedom, they celebrate with friends and family and synagogue communities. As a rabbi, I sincerely wish that we got the same enthusiasm for Sukkot or Shavuot, two traditionally major festivals on the Jewish calendar that do not get enough attention in the liberal Jewish world. But I’ll happily go along with the enthusiasm for Hanukkah and use it to offer Jewish teachings about appreciation for miraculous things in our lives and our ability to stand up for our values. I do not bemoan the popularity of a minor festival; I embrace it.
Finally, I’m grateful that this time of years allows many of my friends, neighbors and Christian colleagues to embrace the highest and best values of their faith. The Christmas message of hope and the values of generosity, kindness, and joy are ideals that we share with Christians. In a world so torn by strife, how wonderful to have a time when our friends and neighbors can celebrate such goodness. The Christmas decorations we see all around remind me of this more than anything else.
Each year at this season I see a lot of articles and blogs by my co-religionists worried about how the profusion of Christmas in public spaces impacts them and their children. I have a few suggestions for people who feel this way.
First, recognize that we are, indeed, only one religious group in America and that the Christians should, by all means, be able to celebrate their most important holiday in a way that is meaningful to them. Most decorations in public spaces tend toward tinsel and lights rather than public Nativity Scenes — in other words, festive, not religious. Ironically, the menorah that many stores and office buildings put out is a religious ritual object — not just a fanciful symbol.
Schools public and private recognize Christmas in myriad ways. If your children are forced to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior in school, that is a problem. If they sing Frosty the Snowman or Jingle Bells in the school chorus, offer to teach the chorus some Hanukkah songs or Passover diddies — just make sure that they are innocuous like Jingle Bell Rock rather than holy like O Come, All Ye Faithful. If the chorus is singing explicitly religious Christian songs, use it as an opportunity to teach your children about multi-culturalism and then, based on your feelings and beliefs, ensure that your child can opt out of those songs. It is worth noting that much of the great art of Western Civilization depicts Christian themes — the Christmas Chorus Concert may be a perfect chance to introduce your children to this fact and how to appreciate the art without accepting its theology.
On a public policy level, I am grateful that my children’s public school is closed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I am also sure that closing for those two days is a major inconvenience for the Christian parents. In financial terms, it must have a greater impact on them than the school Christmas celebrations have on my family. I think that a coherent argument could be made against closing on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur based the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. I am eternally grateful that school does close and that my Christian friends and neighbors graciously enable me to celebrate my faith. I’m happy to offer the quid pro quo of gingerbread houses at the 2nd grade “Holiday” party.
In the end, the best thing that any Jew can do to inoculate ourselves in this season (beside getting a flu shot — which you should get!), is to get involved in Jewish religious life. When we practice Judaism, embrace Jewish culture, and live out Jewish values in our day to day lives, it becomes much easier to celebrate the fact that our Christian neighbors are doing the same thing. Their celebration need not be a threat to our identity. Instead, their we can find joy and satisfaction in the meaning and spiritual uplift they experience during their most precious holiday.