It’s that time of year again. That time of year when everyone is supposed to be preparing for their respective holidays full of good cheer and spirits. What ends up happening is people tripping over themselves to be insulted or to make statements about their beliefs.
First, a bit of history. It might be that a lot of the grumbling comes from not understanding what this time of year really means for various people of various religions and faiths.
People have been celebrating holidays around the winter solstice for eons.
The Talmud makes the claim that Adam initiated the first winter solstice celebration. Having been created in the fall (Tishrei) and having sinned almost immediately upon his creation, Adam believed that he was being punished with less and less daylight. The day after the solstice he realized that such was the way of the world and the daylight period would be getting longer and longer. The next year he celebrated the 8 days preceding the solstice and the 8 days following the solstice as holidays. (BT Avodah Zara 8a). The Mishna which is being discussed in that Talmudic statement notes that there were several pagan holidays that were celebrated around the winter solstice during the Mishnaic era (circa 70-200 CE).
Clearly, there are very old sources that all orthodox Jews deem reliable indicating that this time of year was marked by celebrations. These celebrations predate Christmas and in the instance of Adam, predate Chanukah as well. Further, if the pagan celebrations noted in the Mishna were a few centuries old at the time, those holidays predate Chanukah as well. This is all according traditional, ancient Jewish sources.
Although Christmas celebrates the birth of the Christian religion, it was not celebrated widely for the first 1000 years of Christianity. Slowly, through the middle ages the holiday gained prominence. About 300 years ago the holiday was already very popular with many Christians but some of the factions breaking off from mainstream Christianity at the time deemed it a pagan holiday and banned its celebration. The Puritans, famous for their establishing of colonies on American soil fined anyone who dared celebrate this holiday. The holiday is not found in scripture so it was presumed by them to have been borrowed from pagans and was impure.
Sometime in the 19th century Christmas became a universally accepted Christian holiday. The Christmas Tree was incorporated into the celebration as well. Later, in the 20th century, the imagery of Santa Claus, his elves, toy soldiers, gingerbread cookies and other familiar Christmas symbols made their way into the lore.
The holiday surged in popularity and then in the 21st century, non-Christians began to feel barraged by the overt religious overtones of the celebrations taking place on “neutral ground”. The ACLU, atheist groups and others began asking, sometimes demanding, that Christmas not be celebrated in public places.
Many Christmas celebrators took offense to this. Plenty of arguments have been invoked trying to establish a reason that Christmas celebrations should be allowed in public schools, municipal parks, government facilities, retail stores and pretty much anywhere and everywhere else. Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly have been going on about this for years and Rick Perry spurned an Internet meme with his opinion.
Rabbi Adlerstein on Patheos and the LA Times have reported on the Santa Monica war over Christmas. For years, an elaborate Nativity scene decked the halls of a Santa Monica park. There are 21 spots for holiday displays. A number of groups entered a lottery to determine who would get the spots. Atheist groups won 14 of the spots, Jewish groups got three and the rest went to the Nativity.
The atheists are being pretty mean spirited about the whole thing. They are using this as a platform to poke fun and mock religious people. That’s not very nice. But I wonder how they would have responded if the displays had not been religious, i.e. The Nativity, and instead were the cultural symbols of Santa, peppermint candy and reindeer. Many of the Christmas displays are not signs of religion per se, rather a new-age version of a Christian holiday with winter symbolism that is not inherently religious.
Although, I don’t agree with Rabbi Adlerstein and many other religious Jews as well as Christians who want more Christmas displays. Last week I was at Disneyland with my family. The daily parade was holiday themed. Our younger son really, really wanted to see many of his favorite Disney characters who were not out and about during the day. We figured we would see them during the parade so even though we were not interested in the Christmasness of the parade we stayed to watch. He was thrilled and in that respect it was the right choice.
I watched the parade carefully. There was not one ounce of religion in the parade. Nothing that was particularly Christian or related to Jesus. There were reindeer, there were red hats, Santa and the Mrs. paraded on by, scenes from the Nutcracker, and other holiday stories were represented and there was a tree. But literally nothing in the parade was religious. Yet, we were all very uncomfortable. The symbols of Christmas have become part and parcel of the religious holiday despite not really being intrinsically related to the religious holiday. In other words, even though the parade was not religious, it offended our Jewish sensitivities. This was not our holiday. We were guests. It was uncomfortable.
Disney can do as it sees fit. But as a consumer I was disappointed. What is usually a highlight of the day was uncomfortable for everyone over the age of 3 because they chose to integrate a Christian holiday into a celebration of fun, magic and fantasy. It is unfortunate. And I can completely relate to the atheists who are offended by similar displays of holiday spirit and cheer even when stripped of their specifically religious elements.
That doesn’t justify their over the top protest. Not at all. But I do believe that public religious and symbolic displays that are Christmas and Christian-centric are not inclusive and do not need to be tolerated anywhere and everywhere by the non-Christian public.