A Plea for 'Happy Holidays' during a Rise in American Antisemitism

A Plea for 'Happy Holidays' during a Rise in American Antisemitism
A single end-cap of Channukah joy, set aside from the aisles and aisles and aisles of Christmas- and not a glimmer of any other holiday to be seen.

Last week, I stopped taking my children to the store. I’ll start again in a month or so, but for now, I am avoiding bringing them to any stores. Target, Walgreen’s, Jewel-Osco, Costco, anywhere that a family of five might regularly shop. It’s the only way I know to protect them from Christmas Creep.

You might not think Christmas Creep is something one has to protect children from, and if that’s the case chances are high that you’re Christian. Or that you were raised in a generally Christian household, even if you no longer believe or observe. But millions and millions of Americans are not Christian, and the American cultural obsession with Christmas is, in a word, painful.

We live in a country where the First Amendment grants of freedom of religion, a phrase that the GOP has thrown around a lot over the last few years to grant them the right to discriminate against gay people (or, in a super fun and totally unexpected twist, Jewish and Muslim people). The intention of the First Amendment was to stop the United States from adopting an official state religion. That means America is not a “Christian Country.” There are more Christians here than anyone else, but that’s a wide umbrella. Christians in America include Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses… The Mormon Church was founded in America, and celebrates America as home to its Garden of Eden. But Christ-based faiths are hardly the only ones here.

It’s a huge reason Jews immigrated here, from the Jews on the Mayflower to those fleeing pogroms in the nineteenth century, to those fleeing the Holocaust eighty years ago, to those fleeing religious zealotry in Israel now. It’s a big reason Muslims, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Hindus, all manner of peoples have come to our great country.

But… Christmas.

As soon as the back-to-school stuff is off the shelves, in comes Santa. As a non-Christian, it’s isolating. It’s otherizing. The fetishization of Christmas tells non-Christians they are not welcome, that they do not belong. From September until January, we are confronted with sleigh bells and tinsel and hate groups ringing bells outside our grocery stores. Television, even PBS, becomes a parade of Christmas stories. Public schools have children do assignments about and for Christmas, often during their own ignored holidays. School pageants feature Christmas, only occasionally paying lip service to the existence of non-Christian children in their midst with the inclusion of a token song or two.

And it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Every American who isn’t a Christian can tell you, their experiences with religious bigotry are worse, exponentially worse, during the “Christmas” season. Towns decorate with Christmas Stars and candy canes using taxpayer money, which feels exploitative when you’re not Christian. Imagine being the only Jewish family in your neighborhood and going to the police for help for an antisemitic crime, and finding the officer at the front desk wearing reindeer horns and a Rudolph nose. From the moment the first Christian raises hell over the color of a coffee cup, or screams, “It’s MERRY CHRISTMAS not Happy Holidays!” there is implied threat in otherwise innocuous places.

My sister, an American Jewish woman and a Jewish history scholar, wrote this about publicly funded Christmas celebrations:

When I was 21, living in Chicago and going to art school, I was appalled that the city of Chicago used tax-payer money to have a Santa-train for the kids to meet Santa during their commute. Tax-payer money for a religious holiday. And if you insist that Christmas is an American holiday, you are just plain wrong. It is a Christian holiday. You may, as a real Christian, be offended by the secularization of the holiday, but it is still Christian. You may be an atheist who celebrates Christmas, but that is because it is a family tradition, from at one point, when your family was Christian. You can celebrate a holiday and not be part of that religion, certainly. My best friend loves to celebrate Hanukkah with me, but the fact that she isn’t Jewish makes it no less a Jewish holiday. And you don’t exactly see America secularizing and commercializing Simchat Torah. Even if they did, it would still be a Jewish holiday.

All of which brings me back to keeping my kids at home instead of taking them with me to the store.

My children are Jewish. My children are the only Jews in their school, to the best of their knowledge (or mine). And whether they’ve experienced it yet, they will experience antisemitism among their peers. They will be made to feel less-than because of their Jewish identity. But worse, so much worse, my children will be bombarded with Christmas for months a year, from a society inundating them as though it intends to rob them of any other cultural identity. With the overwhelming presence of Christmas, including the presence of Christmas in our interfaith family, the other part of their lives, their Jewish lives, is eroded. They are annually pushed to a point where they’re told they must make a choice between what their friends and their town and their television and their stores are telling them is right, and the otherness of their own cultural identity.

Every day that Christmas is all they see is a day it is harder for them to see themselves.

Every holiday that Americans celebrate are American celebrations by default, which means last week’s Diwali, and this month’s Thanksgiving, and next month’s Channukah and Solstice and Saturnalia and Christmas and Kwanzaa and Omisoka are all American holidays. You cannot be a Russian and a Jew, but here those identities aren’t in conflict. I am just as American as any other American, regardless of if they practice Santeria or Hare Krishna.

There is no escaping Christmas in this country, and a desire to do so doesn’t make one a “Scrooge” or a “Grinch.” It makes them an American who is not the same as you, and that is not a threat to your happiness.

So please, if you are concerned about the rising tide of antisemitism in our country, about Islamaphobia and xenophobia and the violence enacted under its influence, there is something you CAN do to help. This Holiday Season (and remember, it has already begun!), please consider that Christian holidays are not the only holidays, nor the only American holidays. Remember that the words, “Happy Holidays,” do not exclude, do not demonize. Remember that it is not the same thing to hate something as to be disinterested in it. Remember that a Jewish or Muslim or Hindu person’s frustration with the constant and overwhelming presence of your holiday is not a judgment of that holiday, it is an expression of their exhaustion of trying to simply exist without it.


Read more about American antisemitism, and the Tree of Life shooting, here: Yinzer’s Kaddish

Read my most recent post here: The Most Important Election of our Lives

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Filed under: Interfaith Parenting, Life

Tags: Holidays, Judaism

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