I grew up in a Jewish household, the kind that celebrated by feeling guilty about not attending services. A few generations back there are rabbis in the family, and founders of temples. Matter of fact my wife and I were among the ten religiously mixed families that founded Temple Beth Or, right here in Everett. I even named their newsletter, “The ORacle.” Current members may be surprised to hear that, since we haven’t been a part of it since a year or two after it got going. I do recall, however, the pride of creation when our first Friday night service was scheduled, after many months of effort. Wow, I thought. We really did it, the real deal: it’s Friday night, we have a service to go to, I don’t want to, and I feel guilty.
I remember my mom grumbling about how Christmas was celebrated in my grade school, everyone singing Christmas carols, putting on plays; and then the three or four of us Jewish kids getting up and singing “Dreidel dreidel dreidel” or something, to polite applause. I didn’t care, because to me it was just about singing, the louder the better. In fact, I love singing Christmas carols because, as a baritone/bass I always had the harmony lines, which are fun to belt out. I was in our high school a cappella choir, and we always did a Christmas show. (Not that it’s relevant, but from there I went on to play Conrad Birdie in college. I chose med school only because no one from Broadway offered me a job.)
Until he moved across the waters to Whidbey, a friend had a caroling party every Christmas. There’s a lot I’ve forgotten over the years, but I remember the harmonies to every Christmas carol there ever was, and, if I say so myself (I do), I sound pretty good singing them. Caroling around my friend’s neighborhood, I got looks of approval (I’m pretty sure that’s what they were) for my counterpoint.
This time of year, Christmas is everywhere. You can’t change a TV channel without seeing a Christmas special, or Ralphie. Entire forests are clear-cut to fill newspapers with ads. The only battleground on which the so-called war on Christmas is fought is on the airwaves of Fox “news” and in the minds of those who watch it. Well, sure, there might be a war within Christmas: not everyone, I gather, is entirely happy with the extent to which it’s become no more than a commercial enterprise. But that’s hardly the doing of anti-Christmas warriors. And if a sales person says “Merry Christmas” to me, I say it right back. “Happy holidays, too,” whatever they prefer. For business reasons.
I like Christmas lights. I like seeing lawns decorated with Santas or reindeer or nativity scenes. What I don’t like is the annual ritual of Foxian Billoblustering claiming Christmas is under attack. I can do without letters from people who don’t get (or believe in, evidently) the uniquely American concept of separation of church and state. Nativity scenes belong at homes, churches, at whatever business wants to display them. Malls? Why not?
Where they don’t belong is on courthouse lawns or at City Hall. Why? Because until Bill O’Reilly and Sarah Palin succeed in passing a Constitutional amendment declaring the U.S. a Christian nation, we’ll still be giving at least lip service to the idea that we’re a country that respects the rights of all people to worship, or not, as they please. When you think about it, that’s a pretty impressive acknowledgment of the importance of religion to individuals; and the one way fully and unequivocally to honor it is to keep government entirely neutral.
Some communities set up various rules for allowing any or all religions to put displays on public land. Fine with me. Not so fine with some folks a couple of years ago, when atheists took Olympia up on it. Government involvement gets pretty complicated and confusing, doesn’t it?
And it’s not as if we’re very consistent: some pretty darn nice Christmas trees go up at the White House every year, and on the National Mall, on the Capitol lawn. If there’s a war on Christmas, it’s the only one in decades the winning of which was never in doubt.
Sid Schwab lives in Everett. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org