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« Tom's Bomb.Com | Main | Gawain & the Green Knight (Joe) »

December 12, 2006


There's precedent that the menorah is no more a religious symbol than a Christmas tree? That's surprising to me. I was never very good at embracing my Jewish heritage (dad's side) or Catholic (mom), but I'd have considered a menorah to be closer to a Nativity scene. (Because as I understand it, God is supposed to have made the oil last for eight days, but also because the Christmas tree directly comes from the pagan winter solstice holiday (pre-appropriation) and has nothing to do with Jesus other than through its association with Christmas, which is a federal (and so officially secular?) holiday.)

It's interesting to me that when I was little, my father seemed to make a point of saying that Christmas wasn't his holiday, but in recent years, it's apparently become his favorite holiday. He must have come to appreciate it as a secular holiday, which for me it's always been.

Ruchira will probably remember I had a post last year about how disturbing (not to mention assinine, absurd, etc.) I found the religious right's and media's supposed "War On Christmas."

Question for anyone older than me who might remember: Has there always been this concern over the secularization of Christmas? I can't remember it from when I was younger, obviously, but if it had been there, I doubt I'd have noticed (certainly the O'Reilly et al story was new last year, but actively religious Christians could have been upset for years before that).

"There's precedent that the menorah is no more a religious symbol than a Christmas tree?"

I'm just citing the Seattle Times article:

"The U.S. Supreme Court had determined that menorahs, like Christmas trees, can be secular symbols if they are not part of a religious-themed display. Bogomilsky's menorah — like those in other public places — is lit with bulbs, rather than oil, which requires a blessing before lighting."

No doubt the menorah was a pre-appropriated symbol, as well: there have long been festivals of light in a number of traditions to punctuate the gloom of the darker season. Kids have used tops, if not dreidels, as toys since the end of time; on the other hand, the letters on a dreidel stand for "Nes Gadol Haya Sham," meaning "A great miracle happened there," which is hard to pass off as secular. But, then, so are Christmas angels...hard to see this line of reasoning going anywhere.

"federal (and so officially secular?)"

A novel argument. Easter is a federal holiday, too, but it's hard to interpret it as secular-- although separated from the Christ Is Risen context, certain things associated with Easter, such as Easter Bunnies, are. Christmas just seems secular because we live in a nation in which a Christian majority naturally celebrate it every year. It wouldn't seem as secular, I think, if celebrated by Christians in Saudi Arabia.

Similarly, the implication in the newspaper extract above is that the question of secular vs. religious is one of context. Like I said before, however, I haven't read the underlying case cited in the article.

Tangentialy, I went caroling at a nursing home this past weekend, and was struck, for the umpteenth time, by how weird, precisely of their religiosity, some of the more traditional Christmas carol lyrics seem:

"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, Let nothing you dismay; Remember Christ, our Saviour, Was born on Christmas day, To save us all from Satan's power When we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy."

I guess I'll have to stay dismayed!

In India, I think that nobody bothers about trying to upstage Christmas, because just about every other week or so it's a different religious holiday coming up, with all the associated trappings. Where I grew up in India, Christmas was less about Christmas trees, carols on endless loop than wishing our Christian neighbours a Merry Christmas as they paraded in a caroller's group going house to house to deliver small plum cake treats ( the equivalent of the traditional fruit cake), led by a teen dressed as Father Christmas. The only decorations as a concession to the season, seen in most houses, even those of Hindus and Muslims, would be a pretty colored paper star, usually fitted over the garage light bulbs. It was definitely less commercial and more about having family gatherings.
I gather that this has changed in the recent years, veering more towards commercialization and even noticeable increases in fake Christmas tree sales as opposed to the traditional paper stars.

I am going to tread carefully here because everything I am about to state is my impression, not a verifiable fact.

To me, this effort at "equal time" around Christmas, feels a bit like crashing a party one was not invited to. If the Rabbi wants to sue to include a giant menorah to offset the tallest Christmas tree in the airport lobby, let him. But he shouldn't then be surprised by the kind of huffy, and chilly reception that the demand brought forth from the Seattle Airport commissioners with charges of "Grinch" flying back and forth.

I sincerely hope that other religious groups will not enter the Christmas debate because the majority American Christian community is NOT ready to share its biggest holiday with others by diluting it with symbols of other faiths. And I believe that they shouldn't have to.

Both Sujatha and Anna brought up a couple of interesting points. Sujatha mentioned the quiet commemoration of Christmas by Indian Christians and the equally quiet support of their non-Christian neighbors who put up symbolic stars on their garage (this applies more to the southern Indian states, not so much elsewhere). The important thing to note here is that this happens because of centuries of harmonious co-existence, not by federal or state requirement or by threat of law suits. America, historically an overwhelmingly Christian nation, which now has a minority population adhering to non-Christian faiths (some of whom are recent arrivals) is not yet ready for this kind of comfortable inclusion. I know that it sounds counterintuitive in view of India's bloody religious riots, but Indians on the whole, are more tolerant of each others religious observances. Until very recently, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis and Jews (when they lived in India) could go about their religious business pretty much unmolested. Inter faith acknowledgement of each others holy days, as witnessed by exchange of sweets during Holi, Diwali, Eid and Christmas used to be common practice. With the rise of both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism on the Indian subcontinent, things have changed somewhat in the last twenty years. But even then, for the most part, Indian leave each other alone during religious times. This "more the merrier" philosophy developed in an "organic" way, to borrow Shunya's apt phraseology on another post. India also has a long list of federal religious holidays for ALL Indians - to commemorate EVERY currently practiced faith in India, Christmas included. Americans are not yet ready for this kind of multi-faith existence. Perhaps they will be in the future with newer generations growing up with friends of different faiths.

And there is a slippery slope. Hanukkah falls around Christmas every year. Sometimes Eid does too. But major Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist festivals don't. To accomodate their symbols around the Christmas tree seems to me like an artificial and condescending inclusion without much meaning. A bit like assuaging a crying child with a piece of candy. And what about the symbols? What is acceptable? Muslims do not have many religious symbols, other than the crescent moon which to some, is too much like the crucifix. Hindus have numerous ones, including a nativity scene related to the birth of Krishna around Janmashtami. The rest are idols of deities and in one case, a ten headed demon set up for slaughter in a "just" war (Dussehra). And how about the most universally sacred symbol of Hinduism - the "swastika" which has a whole different connotation in the west? Which of these is secular and which ones will be "acceptable?"

Like Joe, I too see the menorah as a religious symbol. It doesn't bother me but to call it secular is stretching the facts a bit. America is indeed very thin skinned about religion. More the merrier, is not the ideal solution at this time. As long as everyone is guaranteed the freedom of religion (like swearing on the Quran for the oath of office) I think we should work to "reduce" religiosity in public life and not increase it. Anna's observation that Christmas "feels secular" in the US because it is the religion of the majority, is a very good point - just like Holi and Diwali do in India. I think minorities should take that in their stride gracefully. We can live with a lighted Christmas tree in the public square without feeling particularly threatened, as long as other more insidious religious incursions don't occur in our schools, government, military and the science curriculum. And as long as non-Christians are able to observe their own religions with abundant joy in their homes, places of worship and community centers. I think that is okay. Somewhat akin to left handers adjusting to a right handed world.

And to answer Joe's question, no, I did not see so much hostility around Christmas time twenty years ago. This is a relatively new development in my exprience. I don't know how it was thirty, forty or fifty years ago.

I have to admit to surprise at the strength of feeling of opposition in these responses, but have been in a dark cave of work, out of which I emerged only after filing a Closing Brief in an endless hearing, yesterday evening.

Stopping by La Brea bakery on my way to work this morning, I taste tested some cheese (a feature of the store that can hold my interest for a solid hour), chose a truffled cow's milk variety from France and some Italian pan forte, a kind of superior Christmas fruitcake, and went to the register to ring up my purchases. At the register were a variety of beautiful Hanukkah cookies, some with blue and white sugar sprinkles in the shape of menorahs, others in the shape of big dreidels with a clever little "gelt" shaped yellow sugar cookie alongside. I don't recall any cookies in Christmas shapes at the register (there may be by this weekend). This didn't seem odd or forced to me. La Brea bakery is now owned by Aldi or one of the other European conglomerates, but its original location on La Brea boulevard is in a heavily Jewish neighborhood.

It occurred to me that therein may lie an explanation, to some extent, of the variance in our points of view. I've lived in many places in my life, but almost all of the places I've lived in my adult life have substantial Jewish populations: NYC, New Haven, CT, LA. It's hard to feel like I'm party crashing when I am the party, or at least in a big, mixed group of party goers.

The mutt dynamic of places like NY and LA (on the Westside and in the Valley, anyway) also defines what that party is: secular, urban or suburban. As David Greenberg pointed out in an article in Slate ( modern Hanukkah is as invented and synchretic a tradition (combining Jewish and Christian elements) as the American Christmas (combining Christian and local pre-Christian religions). I know, from some of my experiences growing up, that there are places in America in which there is a dominant, Christian tradition not ready to have to "share" Christmas and one would be well advised to observe Crypto Hanukkah, though this article suggests some Christian red staters ( do not feel so threatened. What Ruchira's email, and the cookies at LaBrea Bakery reminded me is how happy I am not to live in one of those places, just as I'm happy not to live in Meah Shearim.

For what it's worth, the hostility surrounding Christmas in this country is, unsurprisingly, at least as old as the Puritans, reviving in the "Great Awakenings" of religious fervor (1730s, 1820s, turn of the 20th C.) which is how, no doubt, some future historian will characterize our time.

As I said, the display of the menorah does not offend, threaten or bother me. In fact it is very reminiscent of Diwali lamps without the shared religious symbolism. And even if it wasn't, it still would be quite beautiful. Perhaps my vehemence is more directed towards the "slippery slope" argument and whether the Hindus and the Buddhists should try to jostle for a position around Christmas for an artificially constructed "equal time." I wish they wouldn't. The acceptance of others isn't so much a matter of how "urban" the population is but rather how non-threatening the integration feels to the community at large. Seattle isn't exactly Huntsville, Texas. But the reaction to the Rabbi's aggressive demand was very negative. And that's my point. I grew up in a very religiously diverse country. I have a very finely tuned sense of when something is being accepted as an organic part of local culture and when it is done by grudging condescension.

Hanukkah falls during Christmas, so the juxtaposition is not all that much of a stretch. I also feel that America has for the most part accepted the "Judeo" and the "Christian" parts of its heritage. I just see some ugliness and law suits taking place around any suggestion that Christmas displays include some more "others." See this very interesting article here. It will be very humiliating if the Hindus put up their religious symbols in public and have to hear sarcastic comments about devil worship and some such crap from those unfamiliar with their tradition. Worshiping in private doesn't have to be "crypto." It is just more dignified given the current culture.

I should make it clear to readers (and to Anna) that my opinions here are directed only to the situation (and similar ones) between the Rabbi and the Seattle Airport, where one party wishes to only display a particular religious / holiday symbol and the other threatens to sue in order to have his preferred symbol accomodated.

I have no quarrel with public displays which voluntarily wish to be "inclusive."

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