I was in the fifth grade. My teacher, Ms. Foley, chose me to be the reader for the Christmas Nativity story.

It was a great honor because it indicated that I was the best reader in the entire class. But it was also frightening. I would have to narrate a story that had nothing to do with my Jewish religious holidays and I would have to say the word Jesus.

I ran home and told my mother, fully expecting her to tell me that I could not be the reader and to tell that to my teacher.

Instead, she said, of course you can. She explained to me that this was America and in this country I was free to participate in all kinds of school events. This was not Poland, she said, where, on Christmas, the Jews of her small town would hide indoors, fearful that the town’s Christians would emerge from church services celebrating the birth of their Lord but also remembering his death and who presumably was responsible for it.

For my mother, a Holocaust survivor of Auschwitz, America could do no wrong. She was, after all, liberated by American troops at the very end of the war against Nazi Germany.

As far as the Christmas season was concerned, I think my mother truly believed the words of President John F. Kennedy who, in an address to the nation in December of 1962, said that “Christmas is truly the universal holiday of all men.”

Although the president’s pronouncement was well-meaning, it blatantly ignored the religious beliefs of millions of non-Christian Americans and only increased the anxiety of millions of American Jews who saw Christmas as the only national American holiday founded on religious beliefs with traditions and symbols associated with Christianity.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are the most difficult. Hardly any shops or restaurants are open and it is, to be frank, a boring 36 hours. For nearly a century, American Jews have created their own parallel Christmas tradition: an evening eating out at a Chinese restaurant (always open) and a Christmas Day trip to the movies.

Not long ago, I asked a Muslim friend what he and his family did on Christmas: We go to an Indian restaurant (always open) and the next day we go to a movie, he told me.

Interestingly, the celebration of Christmas also became an issue for the millions of Jewish immigrants who came to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

German Jews largely embraced the holiday as a carryover from their native Germany, where the “Jewish Question” was continually debated: Could Jews in Germany fully belong to a “Christian” nation? For many Jews, displaying a Christmas tree in their home was part of the response.

Eastern European Jews, however, remembered the Christmas holiday as a time of fear and occasional violence against their community. Coming to America did not change those memories.

And yet, if one examines the history of American Jews and Christmas, one finds a most interesting discovery: Jews have been in the vanguard of an effort, as Rabbi Joshua Plaut writes in his book “A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish,” “to transform Christmastime into a holiday season belonging to all Americans,” without religious exclusivity.

A striking example of this fact is the number of Jewish composers of the most-beloved Christmas songs of all time: “White Christmas” (Irving Berlin), “The Christmas Song” (Mel Torme and Bob Wells), “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” (Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne), “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer” (Johnny Marks), “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” (Walter Kent and Buck Ram) and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (George Wyle).

Not all Christians have appreciated this Jewish approach to the season. They point to the disappearance of Nativity scenes in public schools and offices and other symbols of Christmas’ religious meanings.

They have proclaimed it a “War on Christmas” and have objected to the growing use of “Happy Holidays” instead of the traditional “Merry Christmas.”

Those unhappy Christians need to understand that things have changed. The “Christian America” they perceived never existed in the Founding Fathers’ minds, hearts, and constitutional amendments.

There is no “War on Christmas” and one can wish a Christian “Merry Christmas” knowing that the season of universal joy, peace, and good will is a wish shared by all in our multicultural and multi-religious nation. For many people of minority religions, all they want for Christmas is some acknowledgment.

But there is a “War in America,” a war of political and other divisions that threatens the very fabric and future of our nation. May this Christmas season be the beginning of an end to that very real war.

 

filed under: