December 3, 2010
Christmas is when Jewish children learn they are not Christian. They learn it very young, the first year of public school at the latest.
In my public elementary school, where I was a captive audience in the 1950′s, we learned all the religious “Baby Jesus” and “Christ our Savior” songs.
One Christmas song I could not understand at all. when I was 7, was about a “ground young virgin’s smothering child.” I didn’t know the right words; we didn’t sing that song in my church. I didn’t even know what a virgin was at that age.
Sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving, the entire world starts focusing on Christmas. Decorations start to appear outside homes, in stores, and downtown streets. Christmas music replaces the normal soundtrack of our lives on radio and TV.
In my state, there is even a Nativity scene on the Statehouse lawn, and in recent years, a Hanukkah menorah, that most Jews don’t want on state property. Most Jews believe overwhelmingly that minority religions and non-religions are best served when church and state stay separate. The menorah is put up every year by a sect of ultra-orthodox evangelical Jews (called Chabad), whose goal is usually to make secular Jews more observant, not to convert non-Jews.
Our children’s non-Jewish friends start talking about what they will get for Christmas around Halloween. It’s a big problem for Jewish parents, who want their children to feel good about being Jewish, to explain to their 5-year-olds that we are not Christian, and we don’t celebrate Christmas. As Jews, we are the same as our neighbors as people, equal as citizens, but different. That’s hard for a 5-year-old to grasp.
Parents offer Hanukkah to their children as a substitute for Christmas, and it is a poor substitute. Compared to Christmas, the decorations and music stink. Most Hanukkah songs are written for kids in Sunday school.
Instead of a festive Christmas feast, we eat potato pancakes. There is no significance to potato pancakes. It’s the traditional Hanukkah food because poor people in cold climates have potatoes in December. Most American Jews came originally from Eastern Europe, where they had a lot of potatoes, and deep-fried potato pancakes in oil for their Hanukkah parties. In modern Israel, the Hanukkah food is deep-fried donuts.
(The oil is significant; the miracle of Hanukkah is that a day’s worth of sanctified oil burned for eight days in the Holy Temple, until a new batch could be prepared.)
Jewish families do not travel long distances to be together on Hanukkah. It’s not important enough.
Hanukkah is a minor religious holiday in the Jewish calendar, a secular feast. It celebrates a military victory and a minor miracle. (Compared to freeing the Hebrew slaves from Egypt and parting the Red Sea, making oil last eight days is a parlor trick for God.) Like Purim, another secular feast in late winter, the message is, “They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.”
Christmas is a major religious holiday for Christians. Even though the religious meaning is secondary to the national and family elements for many Americans, the religious echoes and moral content raise it to a level Hanukkah can never equal. No amount of regrettable commercialism can completely wipe out the original meaning of Christmas.
Christmas celebrations in public school are less of a problem for non-Christian children today than when I was a kid.
In 2nd grade, I had to disobey my rabbi, who told me not to sing the Baby Jesus songs in public school. When I was 10, I told the teacher my father said “Come All Yet Faithful” is against my religion, and we’re supposed to have separation of church and state. ”Christ” is the Greek word for Messiah. Worshiping (or adoring) any person, including Jesus, as the Messiah is idol worship in my religion, a violation of the First Commandment.
“It’s not religion. It’s a music lesson,” my teacher said in a tone that implied, ‘shut up and sing.’ She actually said I had to sing because it was a required part of the curriculum. Plus, I didn’t want my non-Jewish classmates to make fun of me, or call me names.
Public schools today pretty much leave Christ out of Christmas. Many Christians object to that, but their children have homes and churches. Their Christmas joy does not suffer much if they sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in school instead of “Come All Ye Faithful.”
As an adult, I love Christmas music, especially “Silent Night” and “Come All Ye Faithful.
I sing along joyfully and reverently. But now I’m firmly grounded in my own tradition, understand what that music means, and am old enough to decide whether to sing it.
I celebrate Christmas every year with the Christian family I’m closest to. They feel like my family, but Christmas never feels like my holiday. I learned it was not my holiday when I was 4, the same year my parents said I could go to my friends’ houses to play on Christmas, and enjoy their holiday with them, if they invited me.
No matter how loudly some Christians complain about a war on Christmas to win a few votes, or raise a few dollars or TV ratings, children are better off if we leave Christ, and all other religion-specific references, out of winter celebrations in public school, where children are a captive audience and have a special fear of ridicule from their teachers and peers.