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Virtual Talmud

A lot of attention has been given lately to a small but vocal segment of the population that sees Christmas–and, by extension, Christians–under attack, with the increasing use of the phrase “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Exhibit A has been the alleged banishing of any and all Christmas references in department stores, whether clerks have been instructed to wish patrons a non-specific “Happy Holidays” or whether such Christmas objects as ornaments have been repurposed as “holiday ornaments” to be hung on “holiday trees.”

On its face, there’s a certain logic to the complaint. Eighty percent of Americans are Christian (note carefully: meaning that they don’t belong to a non-Christian religion, not that they are necessarily practicing Christians), and certainly in many parts of the country that percentage is much higher. Isn’t it only appropriate to acknowledge the obvious fact that most Americans celebrate “Christmas,” not “Holiday”?

And the idea of a “holiday ornament” is particularly silly. Are Jews suddenly going to start hanging glass baubles with pictures of Santa Claus and reindeer from their menorahs now that these are generic holiday ornaments and not Christmas ornaments?

Clearly, the symbols of Christmas need to be identified for what they actually are, and this cuts to the point of the whole debate. Because there is no shortage of Christian symbols this time of year–I haven’t personally heard any department stores swapping “Deck the Halls” for “We Wish You a Merry Kwanzaa”–or of Americans celebrating Christmas.

Christmas appears alive and well, which is why the question of the motives of the anti-Happy Holidays campaign comes into play. Sadly, the purpose of the effort isn’t to get out a religious message: it’s to spread a political and cultural message that America is a Christian nation and that anyone who doesn’t fit the standard is less than a good American, a point none-too-subtly made when the conservative New York Post charged a Jewish Long Island town supervisor opposing Christian prayers at a tree-lighting ceremony with “Treeson.” In fact, the New York Times web site has reported that there is a deeply disturbing trend of these attacks on the “anti-Christmas” camp taking on an anti-Semitic tinge.

The fact is that the Save Christmas folks are trying to use this issue as a wedge in the cultural wars. It’s particularly ironic that the main battleground is department stores, because those who are arguing for these merchandizers to proudly proclaim “Merry Christmas” ultimately end up highlighting the commercial aspect of the holiday, detracting from the spiritual meaning of the celebration.

As a rabbi and a person who cares deeply about religious messages, I’m angered by these attempts at creating division and saddened by the cheapening of Christmas by using it to score political points. Christians should take joy and pride in the celebration of their holiday at this season, just as Jews do in Hanukkah and observers of Kwanzaa do in theirs.

The genius of America is that we don’t need to pretend we’re all the same in order to all be Americans. And as I light my Hanukkah candles this year, I’ll be reflecting on the blessings of this country and the religious freedom that the Maccabees fought to protect.

May we all enjoy a healthy and blessed holiday season.

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