Hey look! I'm not doing the typical Christmas rant this year and am handling another topic entirely.
When I was a young twentysomething, making my way in the working world, I found myself working part time in a real estate office one December.
One afternoon the brokers began putting up the holiday decorations in the office. There were standard decorations with garlands and trees and pictures of Santa. The brokers wanted to be as ecumenical as possible and put up some decorations more evocative of Hanukkah as well. This also led to more discussion about how Christmas-y the Christmas decorations should be. Should they put up a crèche? They decided that both a crèche and a menorah were considered religious symbols. If you had one, you had to have the other and they weren’t sure how religious they should be. In the end, the decorations stayed with trees, santas, and pictures of dreidls (because a dreidl is a game and doesn’t have any real religious meaning behind it). Most of the brokers were Jewish, so I thought their reasoning was fair.
A year or two later I was working for a different company. December came and the decorations came out of storage. Most of the decorations were the kind one associates with Christmas. We had a cheap fake tree and pictures of Santa and probably some cheap garlands. We didn’t have many decorations for the tree, so we covered it with the merchandise the company sold. (We sold advertising tschotskes like pens and key chains – not the most festive or attractive stuff in the world.) Decorations couldn’t be more generic, but it was still “Christmas” in the traditional sense. A small contingent of employees lobbied for Hanukkah decorations. They made do for a while with some pictures of dreidls.
One day a coworker who was a devout Catholic put up a small, nicely decorated tree next to her desk. Beneath the tree was a crèche. She had it up for a day or two before she was ordered to take it down. She wasn’t sitting in the main part of the office. Customers would never see it. She was still told it was “offending” people. A day or two later a menorah appeared in the conference room. I felt a bit bad for my coworker. Why was she not allowed to display something religious when other religions were?
Right now in the lobby of my apartment building there is a Christmas tree. It’s a tall, tastefully decorated tree with no religious ornaments at all. There is no crèche to be seen. There is not even an angel. Next to the tree, on a table covered by a blue cloth printed with Stars of David, is an electric menorah, with a bulb lit for each of those 8 Crazy Nights. It is flanked by two teddy bears dressed in yarmulkes and tallises. One holds a Torah scroll and the other holds a dreidl.
There are two things I’ve learned from these various displays.
The first is that I may have to concede that the War on Christmas people may have a teeny-tiny-minuscule point. Christmas, a holiday celebrated in a religious way by what is likely a majority of the members of the majority religion in this country, is being a tad constricted publicly.
The second is that it’s really hard to decorate for Hanukkah. Can we decorate for any Jewish holiday using anything that’s the color of the Israeli flag? Come on! Teddy bears in yarmulkes? We have exactly two symbols that most shlubs will associate with the holiday. Inclusion is cool, but how does that inclusion happen when you’re talking about a minor holiday that isn’t exactly rich with seasonal symbolism?
What does a good holiday display need and how do we make it for everyone? How many holidays do Americans celebrate this time of year? Are we supposed to include Ramadan and Diwali? Do Muslims and Hindus have special decorations for these holidays? If they do, they must keep them in the house and aren’t compelled to show the whole neighborhood their holiday displays.
Now that I think of it, I rarely ever seen homes decked out in millions of pale blue lights and giant electric menorahs and inflatable dreidls in the neighborhood. I know plenty of Christians who like displaying electric menorahs in the window just to show how open-minded they are. My Catholic grandmother had one. I don't see much else in the way of Hanukkah decorations.
As I go along this line of thought, I have to ask why are we so pushed to decorate everything in sight anyway. It's not enough to put up a tree or some symbols of the season in our homes. We need reminders of the season everywhere we go. It's as if we're afraid we'll forget the holiday if we don't decorate everything everywhere. Not only do we need constant reassurance that it's Christmas, but we also have to make sure everyone is reminded too.
I suppose there is a point to this. Christmas and all of its trappings can generate some serious warm fuzzy feelings. Those decorations can engender a sense of joy and festiveness. We want to be surrounded by that joy. We want everyone else to feel that joy too. If everyone is feeling those feelings then we'll all get together and try to love one another.
The problem is that it doesn't always work. Not everyone will automatically feel festive if they see these decorations. They may not celebrate Christmas and don't enjoy being pressured to share the joy. Sure they can try to ignore it, but it's not always easy when it's in your face. If you don't celebrate Christmas, you may not want to feel compelled to enjoy the season. Also, those who are very sad or depressed or suffering may find the relentless effort at cheer and good will to be even more depressing.
The only thing decorator-happy people can do it try to represent everyone. That's not easy when there are a fair number of holidays to go around (hence the term "The Holidays") and more than one religion to deal with. Certain holiday symbols are often said to be offensive, even though their intention is never to offend, but only to represent a certain set of beliefs.
Is it really an offense, for example, to simply display a nativity scene? I don't really celebrate Christmas in any sort of Christian way anymore, but I don't think a creche is "offensive". I find them sort of fascinating really. Some are lovely works of art. Some are hilariously tacky. I find how the scene is depicted to be interesting. Who are the characters and how many of them are there? How many shepherds? Is the Little Drummer Boy included? How diverse are the players? Is one of the Wise Men black? Do Jesus, Mary, and Joseph look properly swarthy and semitic, or do they look as if the came off the assembly line at Mattel properly outfitted with golden hair and blue eyes? (Now that I think of it, while Mary and Jesus tend to be depicted with light brown hair and blue eyes, Joseph is always dark haired.) If a nativity scene is meant to convert me, it's doing a lousy job.
No one takes similar offense when Hanukah decorations are on public display. In every single situation I mentioned in this post, I seem to be the only one who noticed that Hanukah was the only holiday allowed to display its religious symbolism publicly. While I'm sure there are Christians who are fuming over this perceived inequality, would they ever go so far as saying they are "offended"? I would think not. After all, Christianity couldn't exist without Judaism and even if they're not lighting Hanukah candles, they know Jesus probably did.
Then there is Santa. Why Santa? Santa is supposed to be a secular figure, but he really isn't. Sure there are some right-wing Christian wackos who claim Santa is just an anagram of Satan, but it would be incorrect. Santa means Saint or holy . Santa Claus is just a bastardization of St. Nicholas (Niklaus or "Klaus" in the Northern European traditions from which modern Santa legends were born). St. Nicholas's feast day is in early December. It just made sense to integrate him him into Christmas just as it made sense to integrate yule logs and Christmas trees and a major holiday on the Solstice. When you think about it, Santa is probably the most Christian decoration you put into a holiday display with the exception of a nativity scene. Most other decorations have Pagan origins.
In other words, when you come right down to it, the Pagans are the only ones truly and consistenly represented by your average holiday display. Now who is going to be angry over that?