First, sorry for the deliberately provocative title…but I thought I’d shake people up a bit and perhaps rattle their cage. Don’t worry. I don’t hate Jesus, nor do I hate Christianity or Christians…except in the way they relate to everyone in the world who isn’t them. And yes, I hate Christmas.
No, I don’t hate the music, in fact it’s quite beautiful and all my life I have loved Christmas songs (though not all of them) because of their grace, beautiful melodies and serenity. And no I don’t hate the Christmas spirit. In fact, I find it quite bracing and refreshing. In college, I attended Christmas Midnight Mass at Columbia University’s historic St. Paul’s chapel and found it moving.
So what do I hate about Christmas? Just about everything else. I hate the fact that the average American spends $1,000 per year on Christmas gifts. I hate the endless drone of Christmas cheer commercials, TV shows, and radio airplay. “Jingle bells, jingle bells…Christmas all the way, hey!” God, spare me the bloody steamroller that is Christmas. It rolls over everything in its wake, obliterates cultural and religious difference, and turns America into a homogeneous bowl of mush.
May I give you a few pieces of unsolicited advice if you celebrate this blasted holiday? When you meet someone you don’t know, don’t say “Merry Christmas” unless you really want to piss me off (internally of course–I’d never say anything to you about it). Say, “happy holidays” or some such. If you’re not Jewish and you meet someone who is during the holidays, why don’t you be brave and ask them to tell you something about their holiday, Hanukah. Now, that’d be a refreshing change.
But make no mistake. By asking Christians to honor our beliefs when they diverge from their own, we raise the ire of some of the bigots among you. Consider Michael Lerner’s (founder of Tikkun Magazine) wonderful Christmas eve column on Alternet.org, Christmas Wars. In it, he quotes this amazingly bigoted passage from that paean of right-wing rectitude, Bill O’Reilly. He “told millions of viewers that there was a systematic assault on Christmas by secularists. When challenged by a Jewish caller who said he felt uncomfortable being subject to frequent attempts to convert him by Christians at his college, O’Reilly responded: “All right. Well, what I’m tellin’ you, is I think you’re takin’ it too seriously. You have a predominantly Christian nation. You have a federal holiday based on the philosopher Jesus. And you don’t wanna hear about it? Come on – if you are really offended, you gotta go to Israel then. I mean because we live in a country founded on Judeo – and that’s your guys’ – Christian, that’s my guys’ philosophy. But overwhelmingly, America is Christian. And the holiday is a federal holiday honoring the philosopher Jesus. So, you don’t wanna hear about it? Impossible. And that is an affront to the majority. You know, the majority can be insulted, too. And that’s what this anti-Christmas thing is all about.”
Why does O’Reilly believe that secularists are waging a war against Christmas? Because they are asking Christians to stop saying “Merry Christmas” and to say “Happy Holidays” instead. I kid you not. I tell you, there must be noting’ goin’ on in the news that suits O’Reilly for him to have to dig up such inanity and raise it to such a level of hysterity. And so, in the mutant mind of someone like O’Reilly, my asking him to respect my religious difference is an attempt to sabotage his own religion. And I should “loosen up and stop takin’ it too seriously” when Christians try to convert me. Really, and if I’m still ticked off, then I should just shut up and recognize that America is “overwhelmingly Christian” and then “move to Israel.” Yup, the Founding Fathers would be mighty proud of an idiot like BIll O’Reilly.
At Pike Place Market yesterday (Christmas eve) with my young son, I met a kindly old lady who asked Jonah whether he looked forward to a merry Christmas. I politely told her that we’d already celebrated our holiday and that it was Hanukah. “Oh, that’s nice,” she replied. A few moments later when she exited the elevator we were sharing, she said: “Merry Christmas!” Yeah, right and Merry Christmas to you too, bozo! I’m being too harsh. She was a nice person and meant well. But that’s just the point. One of the problems with this country is that if people are nice at all they’re mostly nice on their terms. They speak from their own limited personal vantage and do little to figure out where the other person comes from culturally or religiously. That’s why I’m telling you this now.
Another thing that pisses me off…I expect that mainstream radio is going to blast you with Christmas carols until you’re blue in the face and you regret that you ever enjoyed singing Little Drummer Boy. But I don’t listen much to mainstream radio. I listen to stations that play folk, traditional and world music. Here in Seattle, that’s KBCS-FM. It too plays tons of Christmas music before and during the holidays. I can sort of live with that. But what annoys me to no end is that on major Jewish holidays like Passover, Rosh Hashana and Hanukah (well, not a major Jewish holiday, but that’s another post…) it plays almost no music appropriate to the day. If KBCS can shower the airwaves with Christmas music can’t they spend a few hours on Hanukah playing authentic Jewish music (i.e. klezmer, Yiddish folk songs, Hasidic tunes, etc.)? And if they have trouble finding someone who could dig up the music for them and explain it to their audience–I volunteer. I’ve done this before on KPFA and KPFK (Pacifica stations in Berkeley and Los Angeles).
I’m just tired of living in a city (Seattle) which pays lip service to tolerance and multi-cultural diversity, but which is in essence a very homogeneous, buttoned down city.
And for that last thing that irks me about Christian attitudes toward Jews–I really hate Christian fundamentalists like Ralph Reed and Newt Gingrich who try to implicate us in their vast right-wing religious conspiracy to transform the nation we love into a Christian monoculture by invoking the “Judeo-Christian” ethic. Guys, my “ethic” shares nothing with yours. If you want force yourselves and your views on all the rest of us who aren’t Christian, don’t use my beloved tradition to do it. The prophets of my tradition don’t want to wage pre-emptive war on Iraq. They want to feed the hungry and heal the sick. Hosea, Isaiah, Micha and Amos don’t want to punish illegal immigrants for not being like the rest of us. They live by the Biblical injunction: “Do not mistreat the stranger for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.” My tradition teaches humility: “Who is great? He who conquers his will.” (Hear that Messrs. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld?) Do you see now why as Jews we feel so alien from the mainstream culture?
Finally, if you really want to learn something about the rest of us who don’t share your faith, learn something about us. Read a book. Buy a CD. Read the posts in my Jews and Judaism category. That’s just a start. There’s so much more you can do.
Hello sir: I’m Mohamed , an Algerian journalist. I read your articles every week and sincerely, you’re a talented journalist but also a honest one. I want to send you some comments–as for your article about Christmas, I agree with you that celebrating religious holidays should be an opportunity to practice and improve the teaching of values that religion teaches us and not to waste money on gifts and nonsenses (miserable people deserve it more, no?!!!)
We have to recognize that America is a nation of freedom and technology but it’s also a nation of decadence of religious values. I think the best way of honouring prophets is to follow their teachings (I’ve said “prophets” because as you know we Muslims consider Jesus as a great prophet but he’s neither god nor son of god). Thank you.
I also enjoy your blog. However, I don’t think the fact that Americans spend on average $1000 for Christmas is any reason to be upset.
And to Mohamed: Jesus claimed over and over he was the son of God. Either he is guilty of blasphemy, or he is exactly who he claimed he was. I don’t see how you can say he is a great prophet. 10 of the 12 Disciples (those that knew Him best) were killed and all had the chance to recant to save their lives. None of the 10 chose that. Do you think 10 out of 10 would die for a lie?
Hello Richard — Happy season of reflection and renewal to all of you.
Richard Silverstein says
First, regarding Cap’s comment–I’m amazed that anyone at freerepublic.com “enjoys” my blog. But I’ll take you at your word and say thank you all the same.
Cap, he of the hypercapitalist freerepublic.com isn’t phased by Americans wasting $1,000 each year? That’s because all that money spent over a single month fuels the American economy for virtually an entire year. But think about the crap that people are spending that money on. Does the true strength and value of the American economy have to be based on the sales of the gilded gadgets, gizmos, tchotchkes and notions so popular at Christmas time?
And no, Cap, Jesus himself did not say he was the son of God. The writers of the gospel (only a few of whom even knew Jesus personally), writing well after Jesus’ death may’ve made such a claim, but as an academic student of Jewish life in the Biblical & Talmudic period I know that it would’ve been the height of blasphemy and megalomania for any Jew (of which he was most decidedly one) to make such a claim. It was left to Saul (or Paul to you) to market Jesus to the world as a divinity (something I’m sure that the ever humble Jesus would’ve found repulsive).
I’m totally with Mohamed on this one. Jesus is one of the world’s great teachers and certainly a great prophet. But God? I think not (though you, Cap are welcome to your own view of it).
Garrett Fitzgerald says
When wishing a friend of mine of uncertain religious provenance generic happy holidays the other day, he wished me a Merry Christmas in return, and commented that he had no issues with being wished a Merry Christmas: just because he didn’t celebrate it was no reason it shouldn’t be merry. 🙂
Richard Silverstein says
Garrett: More power to your friend. I’m glad the subject wasn’t freighted for him. But for me as a student of Jewish history, our history of relations with our Christian neighbors has been fraught with hatred, violence & just plain bad blood. So while wishing someone a Merry Christimas is a no brainer for some like your friend, for me it resonates in other complicated ways. As I wrote above, Jesus the person, Jesus the teacher is a figure I respect. But as for the iconic Jesus at whose helm Christians marched into the Crusades slaughtering thousands of Jews as they went–well, that fellow is someone whose birth I can’t exactly get excited about.
So, you hate spending money on other people? Are you pushy and neurotic too?
Richard Silverstein says
@ Patrick: No, you anti-Semitic moron. THe difference between me and you is I’m not stimulated to spend money like Pavlov’s Dog on a manufactured holiday designed to sustain the world retail industry.
I don’t know what’s your religion. But does it make you anti-Semitic and a snark all at once?? Sounds like it.