24 December 2006

Merry, Happy, & All That

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The last few weeks have seen the usual round of community brouhahas – and resultant news articles – about the various wars we poor Americans face. Not the war in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or the wars on terrorism, drugs, poverty (that dates to the Johnson administration – are we technically still fighting that one?) or the disease-du-jour. No, I’m thinking of the war on Christmas. Oh, and the war on Hanukkah, too. ’Tis the season, after all.

The first Monday of this December, I walked into my office building and there in the lobby was a Christmas tree, along with a variety of other green and red decorations. It’s a fairly generic (if decent enough) office building, one of hundreds in Manhattan, one of thousands around the world, and it is neither very large nor very small. The tree was mid-way in, on the far side of the security gate. On the security desk (so, closer to the front of the building) was an electric menorah, all set to go for the first night of Hanukkah (at that point 11 days off). I did what I usually do when this happens: nothing. Actually, that’s not quite true: as I swiped my security card and went through the turnstile, I thought to myself: “Is this supposed to help me get into the spirit?” Presumably every one of the people who works there will make their own holiday plans, of whatever kind are appropriate for their own needs and beliefs. Where – or why – should the office building factor into this?

This is no mere bah-humbug-ism on my part; I genuinely don’t care. Left to my druthers, I would absolutely prefer to see most of these trees – and menorahs, too! – retreat back inside, into the private homes of their respective owners, or the churches and synagogues that serve these peoples’ varying religious needs. Protestations from faux-secular Christians aside, the religious symbolism (of trees as much as menorahs) is undeniable, and I believe firmly that most of these kinds of displays are better off in private spaces and places. Now, in the dark heart of winter, there is value, not to mention a kind of beauty, in public displays of light. Christmas should certainly be put in that context, since its origins are as much in the (ancient) Roman winter holiday tradition as anything having to do with Jesus. And Hanukkah is a relatively minor Jewish holiday in the scheme of things, but the point of placing one’s menorah in the window is about much the same kind of psychological value of sharing-light-in-winter as any specific notion of a (Jewish) public remembrance of the holiday being celebrated.

Still, there’s a big difference between candles in a window, or Christmas lights on a house, or people celebrating with families and friends ... and the proliferation of all these symbols to every little corner of our lives. How much value does that tree (or menorah) in my office lobby really have? Is anyone going to be spending this evening – it’s Christmas eve, as I write this – sitting in the lobby of the building, enjoying the tree? Probably not. To my knowledge, no one said any blessings over the menorah when they turned on the symbolic electric lights each day. Nor did any of these things remind me to light candles at home, or call my Christian friends and wish them a merry holiday. It’s easy to feel like these symbols are losing (or already devoid) of their meaning – or that they continue to be meaningful, and are thus part of a larger and more complicated battle between the supremacy of these symbols in our public and private lives, and whether or where the lines should be drawn.

BUT, I would like to propose an alternative perspective to all of this, both to the bah-humbugists out there and to the Christmas or Hanukkah warriors of one kind of another: above all else, we should celebrate the freedom we have to argue these issues, openly and publicly. I think it’s easy for people to forget the hardships that many people of just about every belief have suffered, either in the present or in the past; these hardships often make up much of the social history passed along from generation to generation within these different communities. That is certainly the case for Jews, where for many years in many places, public displays of Jewishness were frowned-upon or simply forbidden. To be Jewish in America now is almost miraculous, in the sense of recognizing the freedom, flexibility, and opportunity for unfettered religious observance. It is also easy to forget that Christians themselves have been persecuted, and often continue to be, in places like China and Sudan. Of course, there was a reason that the Christian “Pilgrims” left England for these shores way back when.

There was also a reason that the authors of America’s Constitution approached religion as openly and flexibly as they did. It seems quite clear that they understood the complexities of belief, the struggles between faith in science and religious faith, and even the (seemingly) contradictory views that any individual might hold. As a result, at the very core of our Constitution they placed freedom, including freedom of religion – and gave us something most people around the world still do not have: the freedom to argue, publicly, over religion and its role in our lives. It is that spirit of openness, that freedom, and the opportunities that this freedom offers, that we should try to remember at this time of year.

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.


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