In the week before Christmas, the Jewish blogosphere was set a-Twitter, so to speak, by a column that rekindled the burning question that Jews have been calling the "December Dilemma" for at least 50 years.
Jordana Horn, a columnist for a Jewish parenting website called Kveller, wrote a piece headlined "Actually You Can't Celebrate Hanukkah AND Christmas." In it, she makes the totally sensible argument that there's no way to mash the theologies of the two religions or their holidays together to produce anything that makes a lick of sense.
Which is totally true. And is one reason that those of us who are not Christian marvel at the annual claims of a "War on Christmas." From our seat, the actual war is the battle by Christmas against any other religion's tradition. I defy Bill O'Reilly and his compadres to locate the smallest corner of our nation immune from the months-long drumbeat of Christmas stuff. For us, the holiday seems closer to Star Trek's Borg Collective ("Resistance is futile!") than anything I can find in the Christian scriptures.
To be Jewish (or Hindu, Bahai or Brama Kumari) in America requires some effort to wall out the overwhelming pressure of our national majority faith. So I get Horn's call for a clear separation.
On the other hand, and the religionists won't like to admit it, so much of Christmas in America has nothing to do with Christ or Jesus. If there was a war, it was waged long ago amongst Christians. And the majority of them decided they also wanted a cultural holiday that distilled an essence from Christmas and left most of the God stuff behind. In my mind, I think of that holiday as "Xmas."
Look at our cultural holiday touchstones, all the way back to Dickens's Christmas Carol. What are the books, movies and TV specials that come back again and again and again? It's a Wonderful Life. How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The Nutcracker. Frosty the Snowman. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. A Visit from St. Nicholas. The Nightmare Before Christmas. And on and on.
There's only one example I can think of in the entire popular pantheon that includes enough actual theology for a short sermonette: Linus giving his unapologetic recitation from the Book of Luke in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Let's not blame this on the ACLU or the Supreme Court or Barack Obama. The decisions about which of the many, many holiday-timed specials became perennials were made by the marketplace and over decades. Most attempts by Christian religionists to create entertainment that was explicitly Christian and transcendentally popular have had little success beyond preaching to their own choir.
I'll agree with Horn that a Jewish home is no place for a Christmas tree (or the euphemistic "Hanukkah Bush") but I've happily, even merrily, decorated some friends' trees in my time. The James Taylor CD of Christmas music is among my favorites. And Santa Claus? In American Xmas, he's not much more Christian than the Tooth Fairy or, ahem, the Easter Bunny.
Xmas is a time when Americans, or at least those who take a moment from the shopping, celebrate beauty and peace and generosity. Jews can sing along with that chorus without giving up anything essential to our faith.
This year, I enjoyed Christmas dinner in a Japanese/Taiwanese restaurant near my home in Dallas. Every member of the staff wore a small, red Santa hat topped with a white fuzz ball. They greeted every new customer with a cheerful "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!" Most of us responded in kind. And if you could have found enough churchgoers to make up a minyan in that packed restaurant, I'd have been surprised.
Give up any appreciation or celebration of Xmas? It would make as much sense to demand that Jews not party this Sunday at midnight, when the ball drops at Times Square. Happy New Year? It won't be 2012 in the year of our lord. But how many people really care about the religious origins of the now-secular calendar?
I'll give Horn her due: To maintain our identities in America, those of us who are not Christian need to labor at it, and never harder than in December. But we lose but little, and can gain much, if we can find a way to embrace a broader cultural celebration that offers so much that can unite us.
Theodor Geisel took two cracks at this issue in a book and a film. His book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, has no more theology than you'd find in your average car repair manual. Ditto for the cartoon, a collaboration between Dr. Seuss and the equally talented animator, Chuck Jones. (Let us say nothing, nothing, about the sad "live action" movie.)
Geisel added some words in the movie to what he wrote in the book by authoring a couple of songs. One includes this line: "Christmas day is in our grasp/So long as we have hands to clasp."
I can't top that.
I hope you all had the merriest Xmases possible and may we all have a happy New Year.