“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Constitution of the United States, Amendment 1
There is no war on Christmas, or Christian believers, in this country. “Happy Holiday” cards are not anti-Christian. Christmas trees were holiday trees for pagans long before they became Christmas trees.
War is too strong a word to describe what my father went through trying to raise Jewish kids in public school in the ‘50s, but our school’s Christmas celebration certainly created a conflict for him. Teaching a 5-year-old that he and his neighbors are the same as people, equal as citizens, but different, is a hard job for a Jewish parent when the child’s entire world transforms itself for weeks in honor of Christmas.
My father Marvin Braiterman was an intense (but not orthodox) Jew, who felt commanded by the Bible to teach his religion diligently to his children. He was also a civil rights lawyer who, had he been there, would have included the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution somewhere in the Ten Commandments.
He had nothing against people who lit up their homes, or merchants who decorated their stores, or TV stations that showed Christmas specials. All that was free speech and the free exercise of religion, protected by the First Amendment. He understood the beauty and power of Christmas for Christian believers, and also the vital role its traditions play in the lives of families who are not religious.
He wanted his children to learn about that when we were old enough to understand it, after we had a firm footing in our own tradition. But how could he explain the song we learned in 2nd grade that said, “Come let us adore him, Christ the Lord?” Christ is not our lord, he told us. He is the neighbors’ lord. But the neighbors believe in the same God we do. We just don’t believe God had a son. Christmas is not our holiday. We have Hanukkah. It was pretty confusing when I was 7 years old.
Because my school was half Jewish, we had both a Christmas and a Hanukkah play to promote Tolerance, Understanding and Brotherhood. My father didn’t think either one had any place in the public school. He didn’t want Protestant teachers teaching his religion to his children any more than he wanted them to teach us their religion.
Every year, the Hanukkah play came first. They took the fattest, most Jewish looking 6th grader, with kinky black hair and a big nose, to play the father, and the skinniest hook-nosed 3rd grader, who couldn’t even throw a ball when we went out for recess, to play the son. They each wore skullcaps and sat together at a table with a Hanukkah menorah between them.
“Father, can we light the Hanukkah candles now?” the son would begin. None of us knew a single Jewish kid who called his father “Father.” And none of us wore yarmulkes when we were home.
“No, my son, for I can still see the sun shedding its dying rays above the earth,” the father would answer. All the Jewish fathers we knew talked to their sons just that way. “But while we are waiting, I will tell you the story of Hanukkah.”
So he told his son about Judah Maccabee, and the evil tyrant who did not believe in freedom of religion, and the great Hebrew victory, and about restoring the Holy Temple that the Greeks had desecrated. There was only enough oil to keep the Eternal Light burning for one day, but it burned for eight days, which is why we celebrate Hanukkah for eight days. By then the sun had gone down, and the father said the blessing over the Hanukkah candles.
The Christmas play was a full-blown Nativity pageant, with costumes, a manger, the Baby Jesus, Christmas carols, the three Wise Men, the Star over Bethlehem, even a couple of cardboard farm animals for the manger, like in church.
By 2nd grade, I knew all the words to all the songs about the Baby Jesus, including one I didn’t understand at all about the “ground young virgin’s smothering child.”
In Jewish law, singing “Come let us adore him, Christ the Lord,” is a form of idol worship, a violation of the First Commandment, which was even more important to my father than the First Amendment. That’s why in his children’s public school, but not in churches or Christian homes or on the street, my father really did want to take the Christ out of Christmas.
He never asked the school to excuse us, and he never sued the school to stop the practice. That would have singled us out for ridicule by the other students, and might have triggered a wave of anti-Semitism in the community. So he did not go to war against Christmas in the school, but he certainly did experience a conflict.
Children who have homes, families, churches, decorated stores, TV Christmas specials, even a Nativity scene on the Statehouse lawn, are not damaged if the Christmas celebration in their public school confines itself to our non-religious Christmas traditions. This crusade by Fox News and Media Ministers to win their so-called Christmas war is a joke compared to what my father went through in the 1950s.