Friday, March 19, 2010

Christmas. Yeah, Christmas. חג המולד

As I’ve mentioned on occasion, I’m a *chasida* [follower] of Washington Post columnist Carolyn Hax’s commenters’ forum. The other day Hax ran a letter from a reader who was offended that his Christian MIL (that’s mother-in-law) sent him, his Jew-by-choice wife, and their four-year-old son Christmas cards. Unfortunately, the LW (that’s letter-writer) didn’t arouse too much sympathy, as he also complained that MIL gave them a cash gift, as opposed to one she picked out. Now I’m all down with the second point; heck, I’ll accept cash from any source, even if it’s the Islamic Jihad Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. But the ensuing discussion about card-sending (which elicited no fewer than 287 comments) aroused some latent defensiveness in me vis-à-vis Christmas in America that the Hax discussion finally enabled me to articulate after all these years. My visceral reaction to Christmas is so strong, in fact, that despite having left it behind 29 years ago, I was surprised that I still haven’t actually let go of it.

So, for any American Christians reading this, here's my Knee-Jerk anti-Christmas Primer. And yes, for my purposes, “Christian” refers to you even if you weren’t baptized and have never stepped foot in a church, as long as you don’t actively affiliate or identify with another faith. OK, now that we've got that sorted out, here we go: The LW got all hot under the caller ‘cause his MIL sent him a Christmas card — a seemingly innocuous act, right? And predictably, within the first dozen comments, someone piped up with, “I’ve gotten Chanuka cards and wasn’t offended”, to which I replied:

Christians getting Chanuka, Divali, or Eid cards and not being offended in a Christian-majority society proves nothing. Minority members — the laid-back poster above notwithstanding — tend to be sensitive on this and other fronts, and not without grounds, even if those grounds date back decades or centuries: They’re still part of our group’s collective consciousness. Call it paranoia if you want, but if you haven’t been one, you can’t judge.

Another poster commented: “The Jewish people I know all celebrate Christmas”, to which I replied:

This is akin to telling a blond joke, and when the blond you’re telling it to gets offended, saying to her, “But all my other blond acquaintances thought it was funny.” So you know a few assimilated Jews; does that make you an authority on Jewish observance? I’ll detour here to say that it also pushes my buttons when year after year on December 25th, some fellow ex-pat gigglingly greets me with “Merry Christmas” and then goes on to wax nostalgic about the Christmas carols of her childhood and memories of helping the neighbors trim their tree. It always makes me want to say, “Are you trying to shoe how worldly you are, having come from the multi-cultural West? ‘Cause I’m from there too, and I’m not impressed”.

It’s also ignorant to draw conclusions about a group based on the members thereof that you happen to know. I recall a (nominally) Jewish teacher harassing an Orthodox classmate when the latter told the former that he’d be absent on Succot. The teacher said, “What do you mean it’s a Jewish holiday? I’ve never heard of it!” When I tried to vouch for my classmate, telling the teacher that Succot indeed exists (this was pre-Internet) and it is indeed forbidden to work thereon, he asked me if I’d be in class on Succot. When I replied in the affirmative, he predictably said to my classmate, “See? She’s going to be here, so why can’t you?” It’s called nuances, or in this case, differing levels of religious observance. A university journalism teacher should be sensitive to these, no?

Another poster commented that she didn’t understand what all the fuss is about as she’d never received a Rosh haShana card. To which I replied:

Chanuka is not a Christmas equivalent, and card-sending is not an inherently Jewish tradition. My parents’ generation sends out Jewish New Year cards, which falls in September-October, to their Jewish friends. That explains the fact that you’ve never gotten one.

Another poster tried to smooth things over by saying how she simply sends everyone on her list regardless of religion her usual Christmas cards. Another described the whole issue as “just one big happy diverse soup”, to which I replied:

It works like this: Christians have their Important Holiday on December 25, so many of them (excepting the enlightened group here) assume that everyone has Something To Celebrate circa December 25th. You send your friends "the usual Christmas card". Nice. What you need to understand is that for non-Christians, there is no such thing as "the usual Christmas anything". It's this assumption on the part of (many) Christians that galls (many of) us non-Christians. Sorry. It's my upbringing. This is just not an issue I can get all Zen and soupy about...

To the commenter who claimed that the LW “…is missing out on and not learning a thing about his MIL’s traditions”, I referred to another Jewish poster’s references to: “…so overwhelming is the [Christmas] cheer with the movies, decorations, lights, commercials, sales, concerts: It's impossible not to get sucked in!” I wrote:

Pennagirl, "learn about MIL's traditions"? Are you kidding? Did you read Tscoll’s post? In order to "learn about" Christianity in the US, the only requirement is to have a pulse and watch TV: You absorb it into your pores by osmosis. In fact, if you can wrap your head around it, "Happy Holidays" and "Seasons Greetings" is almost as presumptuous (perhaps more -- I haven't decided) as "Merry Christmas". The presumption that "OK, we get that you don't celebrate Christmas, but you MUST celebrate SOMETHING at this time of year", i.e., there is something inherently spiritual or joyous about the period between Thanksgiving and Gregorian New Year akin to the sun rising every morning, therefore I greet you with "Good morning". (What? Your religion doesn't recognize mornings???!!!). It is just so hard for Majority America (for lack of a better label for this category) to internalize that December 25th is just another day for us, like the 10th of Tishrèi is to you all. Except unlike the 10th of Tishrèi, of which you walk around all day utterly unaware, Christmas is In Our Faces; we feel assaulted by it. Though we'd like to, we can't just pretend like it's any other day. Believe it or not.

Finally, I agree that the LW seems to be looking for offense where there is probably none intended. I was just trying to give the majority members in this forum a window into what makes minority members tick, i.e., what may push our buttons. I don’t mean to sound bitter; I'm just tellin' it like it is, through my lens, having grown up as an identifying Jew in the US. For any of you who “get it”, you’ll understand this: I'd jump for joy if just one retail clerk between Thanksgiving and Gregorian New Year were to bless me with a generic, "Thank you. Have a nice day".


Tangentially, I was reminded just yesterday of how cringe-producing it is when the screenwriters of TV series try to “do Jewish”: I was watching the Party of Five episode wherein Claudia contemplates converting to Judaism for her preteen Jewish boyfriend. Arty’s attempts to explain Judaism “while standing on one foot” are superficial at best, pathetic at worst.

Regarding “the rules”, he tells her about “kosher” [kashrut] by explaining, “You’re not allowed to eat lobster or shrimp, and you can’t have a hamburger together with a milkshake”. When Claudia’s face falls, Arty reassures her, “But you don’t have to be kosher [observe kashrut]; we’re not.” Oy vey! And the actor’s awful attempts at Hebrew (or in this case Aramaic): *yees go dole, vah yees go dosh, shmay row bow*. Gawd. Please, screenwriters-attempting-to-be-diverse: Spare us this torture. We’re all blushing beet-red on your behalf.

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