So let me start out with a disclaimer, in the spirit of fair warning. This is a rant, and as such will probably sound less forgiving of other points of view than I generally am. Most particularly as follows:
If you are by philosophy and choice a religious syncretist, one who constructs their own religious tradition by deliberately enfolding and including multiple sources, I can and will respect that. But a lot of what I'm about to say is going to sound pretty anti-syncretist, especially towards the end, and especially if your two sources are Christianity and Judaism. I can't really apologize for that, only ask you to please believe that I don't intend it as an attack.
Here's the deal: I've been fighting the War On Christmas all my life.
I wrote the original version of this back in 2007. You can see it here if you're interested, but most of it is reproduced and considerably expanded below.
Follow me, if you will, over the orange sugarplum.
I grew up Orthodox Jewish in Seattle in the 1980s, in what at the time was a fairly small Jewish community. My parents both taught at the more traditional of the two Jewish private schools, which my siblings and I attended. It was Orthodox in practice and philosophy, if not necessarily in population; I knew, for instance, that many of my schoolmates didn't keep a kosher home. My nearest Jewish neighbors were about a quarter of a mile away.
If you didn't grow up similarly, then I don't know if I can explain the sense of not truly being part of the world you live in. How chance words and phrases on TV or the radio are constant reminders of your otherness -- words like church or Jesus, sure, but also words like McDonalds or marshmallows or Saturday morning cartoons. Or the names of all the characters in the books you read, none of them sounding anything like yours or your friends'. It's not something you think about a lot; it's just always there.
And as you've probably noticed even if you don't have the automatic otherness association: this time of year, Christmas gets everywhere. Its associations are so strong and so pervasive that it becomes impossible to separate Christmasness from the sound of tinkling bells, or the colors red and green in combination, or candy canes, or pine trees, or reindeer, or mistletoe, or Victorian winter garb, or holly, or gingerbread, or log fires, or snowflakes. And those images are on everything mass-produced.
One month of the year when absolutely everything says NOT YOURS.
And I do mean impossible. Later I went to a Jewish high school in New York; once I wore a sweater with snowflakes on it -- blue and white snowflakes, mind you -- and I was asked why I was wearing a Christmas sweater. My sister was asked the same when she wore a sweater with a pine-tree-and-snowy-mountain pattern. These were Jewish kids asking us, from a subcommunity so insular that about half of my classmates there didn't own a television, and their immediate association with those images was still to do with Christmas.
Back in grade school in Seattle, though ... I remember envying the houses that had Christmas lights, and simultaneously being vehemently sure I didn't want to have them on our house. I remember saying to my big brother, very proud of my preadolescent cynicism, that we would never see a "Happy Hannukah, Charlie Brown" TV special. I remember being delighted on seeing a rare station break wishing viewers a happy Hannukah, even if they didn't spell it right, or a menorah-and-dreidel decoration at the grocery store, even if it looked a little pathetic next to the real decorations.
If it had come out only a few years sooner, Adam Sandler's song would have delighted me even more. When you feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree / Here's a list of people who are Jewish, just like you and me...
HAPPY HOLIDAYS (YEAH YOURS TOO I GUESS)
But here's the thing.
I don't know whether it's the fact that I now live in New York City, a town that's got more Jews than Jerusalem. Or the fact that I spent two years living in Jerusalem itself, a place where December 25th can come and go entirely unnoticed by most of the population. Or the fact that it's 2012, not 1985, and things have changed. Or the fact that I'm twenty-some years older.
But the acknowledgement of Hannukah around Christmastime has become obligatory, and sometimes I don't know that I like it much better than the ignoring of it.
Part of it is that frequently it's perfunctory, an afterthought, and usually a cheap afterthought at that. In the lobby of the building where I worked, back in 2007 when I wrote the first version of this, there was a gorgeous tall evergreen tree decorated in red and gold, with tiny ornamental giftwrapped boxes and gilded pinecones and glossy spheres and strings of tiny lights. And three wreaths, similarly decorated. And potted poinsettias, red and white. And a grand piano moved in for the occasion, with a live pianist at certain hours and a sign above it saying that the holiday music had been sponsored by some company or other. And ... a plug-in menorah in white and blue plastic sitting on the front desk. Sing it with me, kids: one of these things is not like the others.
But here and there I've seen attempts to make the Chanukah decorations as rich and lavish as the Christmas ones. The lobby of the building where I work now has a similar gorgeous tree-and-lights display, accompanied by a gilded and intricately patterned plug-in menorah taller than I am. I recall one year when Macy's housewares department had elaborate festive tables set with fine china and silver, done up in Christmas colors -- and off in the corner, one similarly elaborate table done up in blue and white.
And ... it doesn't work. It's overdone to the point of being laughable. Because Chanukah is not that major a holiday.
Chanukah is not what we have instead of Christmas. Seriously. It's not anything like that big a deal. It isn't Biblically mandated, and it isn't a day on which working is prohibited, and there are no prayers about the holiness of the day, and if we get together for a festive meal it isn't because the holiday requires it; it's pretty much just because we feel like it. It is not the kind of holiday where you break out the good china.
And there's the real core of the irritation right there: you* don't know a goddamn thing about my holiday. The only reason you're acknowledging it at all is because it comes at the same time as your major holiday. I didn't hear a Happy Sukkot from you back in September and I'm not going to hear a Happy Shavuot from you in June, and if I hear a Happy Passover from you in April it'll only be because it's roughly at the same time as Easter, but you're going to be flying that Happy Hannukah banner all December even after Chanukah's over. Because what you're really saying is Merry Christmas. You're just changing the words.
* I do not, of course, mean here "you who are reading this now."
And -- okay, I do appreciate that they're changing the words. I do. Because it means recognizing that not everybody in the world is Christian, that not everybody in the world celebrates the same holidays, and (importantly) that it's okay that not everybody in the world is and does. And that's a crucial thing to recognize, and I'm glad of it. Even if it's a perfunctory afterthought, it's still a good one to have, and it's still better than not having it at all.
But sometimes that runs into the other side of the discomfort, which has to do with taking that recognition too far in the other direction and reaching an attitude of all-embracing inclusiveness. An approach that wants to tell us that there's no real difference between our holidays. We use different words, but really we all mean the same thing: it's about light and warmth against the winter's dark and cold, and song against the winter's silence, and family, and togetherness, and love. And those are the things we all share, regardless of what we call ourselves, and in the face of that our differences aren't important at all, and we can all be united in celebration of our shared light and joy. And that's a beautiful thought, isn't it?
... well, yes. It is. It really is.
Except that that's not what Chanukah is about at all.
Except that what Chanukah commemorates is the Jewish people's successful resistance against the Syrian-Greeks and their attempt to absorb us into their religious and secular culture, first by welcome and then by legislation and then by force of arms. It's about the time we fought a war for the right to study our Torah and practice our laws and throw their gods the hell out of our Temple. The right to say to the dominant culture: we are separate, we are distinct, we are other, and you will not force us to become like yourselves.
And -- okay, so maybe for a lot of people Christmas isn't about the birth of Jesus. And maybe for a lot of people Chanukah isn't about the victory against assimilation. And we commemorate our different holidays in similar ways because we're all human, and we all have the basic human urge to make noise and light fires in the depth of winter when it's cold and dark, and when we were first establishing our holiday traditions we did what seemed appropriate. And I guess for those to whom the holiday is just about light and warmth and family and song, there really isn't any significant difference between them.
But still ... really? This holiday? This one? The poster holiday for anti-assimilation is the one that's going to be constantly identified with the big goyish holiday that happens to come at the same time of year? And not just identified with as ~the Jewish alternative~, but actively combined with, in half a million cute little greeting-card images, as just one half (or even smaller part) of a multicultural mashup that is still and always dominated by Christmas?
It's ironic; bitterly so, sometimes.
IN WHICH I GRATUITOUSLY QUOTE WALT WHITMAN
So do I contradict myself here? I start out by talking about how distancing and demoralizing it can be to feel like you're not part of the culture you live in, and I just finished by vehemently defending our right to hold ourselves apart from the culture we live in. So what is it you want, Batya? Do you want to be separate and other or embraced and included?
I think what I really want is a third option: to be acknowledged, and ideally not as a half-assed afterthought. I want the country I live in to make itself continually aware that it contains me and others like me, and others still who are neither like me nor like the dominant majority, and to accept that that's not a threat to anybody. I want it to be understood that celebrating Christmas is not somehow more American than not celebrating Christmas, regardless of whether one is celebrating something else instead or nothing at all. I want my holidays recognized as significant in themselves, not as poorly grasped faux parallels to more popular holidays.
I want us to be able to appreciate each other's differences without trying to handwave them away. This country is big enough and old enough to deal with that level of complex thought, in all its seeming contradictions. We are large; we contain multitudes.
... aaaand more pettily perhaps, I want Christmas to back off of the winter imagery and leave some of it for the rest of us.
Seriously, you guys. Blue and white snowflakes.