’Tis the season to be contentious. Yea, even downright litigious. Merry Christmas and Happy Lawsuit. Every year, like the eternal fruitcake, it happens again: Someone sues a city over a nativity scene. This year, Athens, Texas, is under fire. Or a governor calls the state Christmas tree a “Holiday” tree, and people get really riled up at this politically correct insult to Christmas. For the 2011 episode, see “Governor Chaffee Chafes Rhode Island.” It’s playing on the nearest web search.
But it’s not just governments. Retailers can’t seem to win either. A few years ago, Target got 700,000 individual complaints because it took a holiday-neutral approach in its marketing. No “Christmas” just “Holidays.” Target apologized and brought Christmas back. But if they bring it back too vigorously, they’ll be accused of ignoring their Kwanza-and-Hanukkah celebrating customers. And how about all those atheist/pagan/solstice-loving shoppers?
I can’t speak for the latter group, but as one of those Jewish customers, I say please continue to ignore me and my holiday traditions. The problem with applying fairness to the holidays is that you end up treating apples like oranges. Or mistletoe like menorahs. Hanukkah just isn’t like Christmas, despite the desperate efforts of marketers and Jewish parents of small kids suffering from Christmas-envy.
Lest you underestimate the pull Christmas has on little Jewish kids, let me tell you my Christmas story. I grew up in a neighborhood that was almost exclusively Jewish, and yet I became obsessed with Santa when I was six. He seemed like God himself, sitting on a throne, granting wishes, surrounded by angels in the form of elves. And there he was in the local mall.
But my mother didn’t want me to sit on his lap. She told me it wasn’t our holiday. Finally, when I was eight, I got my chance – my mother was distracted in the shoe department. I felt terribly guilty as I mounted Santa’s lap. I was being disloyal to my family and my faith. So instead of asking for the Hot Wheels set I wanted, I blurted out, “I’m Jewish.” Santa leaned close, his beard tickling my cheek, and whispered, “So am I.”
Thus ended my Santa obsession. Apparently, he was just a guy from my neighborhood, playing a role. The forbidden Christmas tree shone a little less brightly for me after that.
And I turned my attention back to Hanukkah, which unfortunately for eight-year-old-Hot Wheels-craving kids is really just a minor holiday. It falls behind more important festivals most non-Jews have never heard of: Sukkot, Purim, Tu Bishvat. Hanukkah commemorates a battle in which Jewish forces, fighting for the right to practice their religion, overthrew a Syrian dictator in the second century BC. And then, when the Jews went about cleaning up the Temple, which had been desecrated, they lit a candelabra (called a menorah) and the meager one-day supply of oil burned for eight days. And so in another Christmas-like coincidence, the holiday includes a miracle and lights.
But really it’s a holiday that celebrates Jewish resolve against assimilation. Which is ironic, considering it’s the only Jewish holiday that’s been assimilated.
Giving gifts only became part of Hanukkah in the last hundred years, when the Goldsteins wanted to keep up with the Smiths. And because the holiday lasts eight days, some families started giving a present each day as if that would help Hanukkah outshine Christmas. It’s not going to happen.
For one thing, we don’t have a soundtrack. Have you heard the Dreidel song? It was never covered by Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra.
The truth is, Hanukkah can’t compete with Christmas. And it shouldn’t. While certainly well-intentioned, the attempt to be inclusive – to include the menorah in public displays and Hanukkah alongside Christmas in greeting cards – can seem a bit condescending. The message, at least to me, is that no matter how different our traditions seem, they’re all the same underneath. And that’s just not true.
For example, there’s no parallel in Christianity for the Jewish practice of keeping kosher. And there’s no Jewish version of the miracle of the virgin birth. Diversity is about respecting differences, not finding the thread that makes us all the same.
So I say keep on celebrating Christmas boldly, publicly, and without apology. It’s the holiday of the majority, and it’s a beautiful mix of the secular and the spiritual. Christmas is a religious holiday, but it’s also become our American festival of hope and charity. It’s the time of year people volunteer at soup kitchens and flood charities with much needed donations. It’s about the eternal victory of light over darkness. Christmas is the time many of us recognize what a wonderful life we have. We need Christmas in America.
Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.