Long before I became a believer, I loved Christmas. The Christian part came late in life after my marriage.
That's why I get so angry with people like Bill O'Reilly, who have done their best to tarnish the Christmas spirit. Christmas doesn't belong to just people of one faith. Christmas belongs to all people.
Take a look at Irving Berlin.
Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson had a terrific piece
earlier this week about Irving Berlin and the so-called War on Christmas.
The white Christmases that Irving Berlin dreamed of weren't the earliest ones he used to know. He spent his first five Christmases in czarist Russia, and his only recollection of that time, at least the only one he'd acknowledge as an adult, was that of watching his neighbors burn his family's house to the ground in a good old-fashioned, Jew-hating pogrom.
So it's no surprise that when Berlin got around to writing his great Christmas song in 1941, nearly half a century after his family had fled the shtetl of Mohilev for New York's Lower East Side, it was flatly devoid of Christian imagery. It is, for all that, a religious song. It's just that Berlin's religion was America.
"White Christmas" is an achingly nostalgic ballad, evoking a rural America where treetops glisten and sleigh bells ring. This was Currier and Ives country, an idealized winter landscape created for an urban nation that was busily shipping its young men overseas to fight Hitler and Japan. Amid the unprecedented disruptions of the war, "White Christmas," with its implicit assertion that we can somehow get back to this innocent Eden, found a ready audience.
Many of those Christmas songwriters, of course, were Jewish and the children of immigrants; their deepest drive was to demonstrate beyond all doubt that they were assimilated, cosmopolitan, American. Berlin's father had been a cantor, but Berlin himself, unlike the hero of "The Jazz Singer," wasn't torn between the Jewish piety of liturgical music and the American secularism of ragtime. When he left home at 14 to sing in the saloons of the Bowery, he never looked back.
My love of Christmas has little to do with faith either. For most of Christianity, Christmas wasn't celebrated by Christians. That came much later.
And Bill O'Reilly's effort is really nothing but old-fashioned anti-semitism. If he ever put down his loofah and attended a church regularly, he'd see the main holiday of the Christian faith is Easter.
Christmas is not about shouting anyone down to condemn them for saying a generous and inclusive "happy holidays." Christmas is not to be used as a fundraiser for intolerant and unloving causes.
No, Christmas is for all of us.
And it's that Currier & Ives ideal that Berlin helped create even though it might be unattainable it's something bright and beautiful to reach for because sometimes the striving is better than the arriving.
It's about gathering with family. It's about standing alone in a dark cold night listening to snow flakes so big and the night so silent you can hear them fall. It's about sitting up with a neighbor recently widowed so she wouldn't have to spend her first Christmas Eve alone in 55 years. It's about drinking egg nog. It's about cookies hot from the oven with a cold glass of milk. It's about Santa and bright lights on a white artificial tree when you always swore you'd have live trees but the girls sent by heaven to live with you thought the white was "pretty." It's about giving to the women's shelter and to the homeless. It's about picking up hitchhikers and adding three hours to your already six hour trip so that you can get strangers home to their family. It's about watching "It's A Wonderful Life" through misty eyes at the end and it's kissing a loved one under the mistle toe.
Listen if you thought tonight's happy story would be about a specific memory, I've got to tell you there are too many to choose from for me to pick just one.
So a toast to Kossacks everywhere: Merry Christmas and God bless us every one.